It was with much trepidation that The Soccer Shop owners Lisa Turbeville and brother Mike Hernandez ordered more than 1,000 national team jerseys of most of the 32 nations competing in this year’s World Cup.
No doubt U.S. jerseys would sell, but those of Russia and Honduras?
They needn’t have worried. For the past three weeks, sales of jerseys, flags and soccer scarves at the MacDill Avenue store have rocketed. One customer drove from Naples for Costa Rica jerseys for him and his son. A Spring Hill man was ecstatic to find the Croatia national shirt in stock.
“We want it to be World Cup every two years,” Turbeville said. “It has been non-stop.”
Arguably the most-watched sporting event in the world, the World Cup kicks off today in Brazil with an opening ceremony followed by the host nation taking on Croatia. While still considered a minority sport in the United States, sports stores, bars and supporter groups across the Tampa Bay area are gearing up for the four-week soccer extravaganza and say interest in the sport the rest of the world knows as football has never been higher.
Sales of soccer merchandise are up 60 to 70 percent at the United World Soccer store in the Westfield Countryside Mall in Clearwater and its sister store in Brandon, said owner-manager Rob O’Nan.
The Countryside store expects to sell out of U.S. merchandise during the next few days, while Greek nationals from Tarpon Springs have snapped up the blue and white Greece national jerseys. Even the 24 Iran jerseys the store optimistically stocked have almost sold out.
O’Nan said that may be evidence that soccer is beginning to establish itself firmly as a major sport in America. Many of the generation of Americans who grew up playing soccer now watch the game and expose their children to it. Cable TV broadcasts of the best domestic soccer leagues from countries like England, Spain, Italy and Germany also are boosting the game’s popularity. Both Fox and NBC have broadcast English soccer games on their main network channels.
“I think it gets bigger each time; people understand the game better; they support the game better,” he said. “You see the attendances with Major League Soccer going up all the time and the growth of the Tampa Bay Rowdies.”
The raucous passion associated with soccer is likely to be more evident around Tampa Bay this year, too, with more bars planning to hold World Cup watch parties. That includes Yard of Ale Gastro Pub on Ulmerton Road in Largo, Old Northeast Tavern in St. Petersburg and The Pub at the International Plaza, where all 15 TVs are tuned to the event and plans to screen games via a large projector.
“Every single day there is a game, every TV will be monopolized by the World Cup,” General Manager Mike Diaz said.
Long established as a soccer gathering place, MacDinton’s in South Tampa and its sister bar in downtown St. Petersburg are bracing for large crowds for all 64 games of the tournament.
More than 700 people are expected to cram into the South Tampa MacDinton’s when the U.S National team plays its first game against Ghana at 6 p.m. Monday. In addition to TVs, the game will be shown on a 40-foot LED screen in the parking lot, General Manager Kevin Richardson said.
“It’s going to be fun; it’s going to be rowdy, especially for the American and English games,” he said. “If you think you’re the only Bosnian soccer fan in Tampa Bay, come to MacDinton’s and you’ll see that you’re not.”
Among those swelling the crowds at MacDinton’s in St. Petersburg on Monday will be Ralph’s Mob, the fanatic band of Tampa Bay Rowdies fans, and members of the Tampa chapter of American Outlaws, the unofficial supporters group of the U.S. national team.
The group has 130 chapters across the country, with more than 150 members in Tampa Bay. About 40 fans traveled last weekend to Jacksonville to watch the United States’ final World Cup preparation game, a 2-1 victory over Nigeria.
Chapter President Michael Tully, a 27-year-old who grew up playing baseball and works for a company that manufactures x-ray machines and metal detectors, is an example of new soccer fans who don’t see any difference between watching soccer and traditional American sports.
“The more you watch and understand the intricacies of the game, the more you understand why they call it the beautiful game,” he said. “We’ll be chanting and singing and pretty much trying to recreate the atmosphere in Brazil as much as possible while cheering on the Stars and Stripes.”
The World Cup also serves as a rallying event for communities of foreign nationals. Colombia fans, ecstatic at the country’s first appearance in a World Cup for 16 years, are expected to pack restaurants along Armenia Avenue. Mexican fans will gather at Tequila’s in Ybor City.
More than 40 members of the Tampa Bay British Expats group are expected to watch the England-Italy game at Yard of Ale Gastro Pub on Ulmerton Road on Saturday.
Outside the pub will be a Fiat and a Mini-Cooper placed bumper to bumper, a visual representation of the nationally rivalry arranged by group organizer John Crapper, who works for a car dealership.
For many older expats, the World Cup is a chance to feel connected to their homeland. Teams wear their national colors and national anthems are played before each game, rekindling long-dimmed patriotism, he said.
“It’s the camaraderie,” he said. “It’s the reliving of old experiences, a little bit of national pride.”