TAMPA — On Sunday at 6 p.m., a soccer ball was kicked in Manaus, Brazil, and thousands of fans — wearing red, white and blue face paint, shirts, flags and gigantic Uncle Sam hats — roared throughout packed bars in Tampa.
Along a half-mile stretch of Howard Avenue, hundreds cheered outside the bars because they couldn’t fit inside.
No doubt about it: World Cup fever, American style, is getting hotter.
It was Team USA’s second Group G game, against Portugal, and it was — in the biggest sense of the word — fantastic.
“It’s so great to see all these people getting into it,” said Tampa’s Annie Paleveda, 32, a lifelong soccer fan who has attended Rowdies and Mutiny games, played in youth leagues and in high school at Tampa Catholic, and cheered her brothers on in countless matches. “It’s finally happening.”
The game, which ended in a 2-2 draw, was an emotional roller coaster.
Two hours before the game, there was intense discussion of formations and American players Clint Dempsey and John Brooks (who scored the goals in last Monday’s 2-1 victory over Ghana) by folks at The Lodge in South Tampa, some of whom called two weeks ahead seeking table reservations.
More than 20 minutes before kickoff, fans packed in tight and screamed “USA! USA! USA!,” and when the national anthem began, they bellowed every word at the top of their lungs.
When Portugal went up 1-0 in the fifth minute on a botched American defensive effort, fans stood around like lampposts with the bulbs burned out. When the U.S. tied it in the 64th minute on a bullet by Jermaine Jones, the roar at The Lodge was deafening under spewing smoke machines. When the U.S. went up 2-1 in the 81st minute on a goal by Clint Dempsey, it was so loud, the place shivered.
Then, with seconds remaining, Portugal once again sucked the life out of the place when Silvestre Varela buried a header in the back of the U.S. net.
“But there’s still hope,” said Paleveda, referring to the fact that the U.S. team still has a chance of advancing out of the Group G pool and into the knockout round.
So yes, the fun will continue for at least a little while longer because on Thursday, the U.S. plays Germany. A victory or a draw, and the U.S. advances. Even a loss might not end their World Cup.
“Hopefully I can find a way to see some of it on my lunch hour (kickoff is at noon),” Paleveda said. “I’m sure I won’t be alone.”
The atmosphere might get particularly intense, and fun, on Thursday at Mr. Dunderbaks in north Tampa, where German fans have packed the place throughout this World Cup.
“It’s taken a lot of years, but (the huge soccer fever) is finally here,” Paleveda said. “It’s awesome.”