RECIFE, Brazil — In an effort to unify U.S. supporters that traveled to Brazil to follow the team throughout the grueling World Cup group stage, FanHQ and the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) hosted a series of free-entry parties for U.S. fans the night before each match.
I attended all three night-before parties in each of the host cities of Natal, Manaus and Recife, and if I could use a baseball scorebook to rate these events, FanHQ and USSF are 3 for 3, batting a perfect 1.000.
The United States has the second-largest number of fans at the World Cup (behind only host nation Brazil), a clear sign of growing popularity of the game in the U.S. Predictably, many that made the journey are pure soccer fanatics, attending their third, fourth, or for some their fifth World Cup.
But as I spoke to more and more U.S. fans, it became increasingly apparent there were just as many rookie World Cup attendees as veterans. “Yeah, first time,” one fan at the Recife party answered when I asked if this was his first World Cup. “I’ll tell you what though, this sure won’t be my last. I’ll be back every four years for the rest of my life.”
“I’ll see you there!” I responded before remembering the next two World Cup sites are Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022). “Well, I’ll see you in Russia,” I followed, “but you can call me in 2022.”
The fan demographic wasn’t exactly what I expected, either. I assumed the crowd would be predominately male, ages 18-40. When I arrived at the first party in Natal, however, there were assorted groups of friends and entire families in full U.S. gear showing enthusiastic support — parents, siblings, children, even babies . . . male and female.
The series of events put on by FanHQ and USSF in Brazil, the first of any kind held explicitly for U.S. supporters at a World Cup, were wildly entertaining and astoundingly successful. And, yes, there will be another FanHQ party in Salvador on Monday night ahead of Tuesday’s U.S.-Belgium game in the knockout round.
Natal – Game 1 (6/15)
On the eve of the opening match for the U.S., fans were riddled with nerves over the daunting task that lay ahead — the dreaded Group of Death. Fans arrived at nightfall to the enormous pop-up venue Peppers Arena, which upon first glance appeared to be larger than necessary for the initial crowd.
Early in the night, the fans had faith in the USMNT and its chances to advance. But still, behind their words of confidence was a hint of skepticism. Their mouths proclaimed “yes, we can,” while their eyes simultaneously signaled, “but it’s going to be really, really tough.”
Throughout the night, people debated over coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s controversial statement made earlier in the week about the impossibility of the U.S. winning the World Cup. The most practical fans argued that his comments were taken out of context and agreed that for the U.S. to win, it would require the team to play well above its actual skill level for seven straight games. But all couldn’t help to wonder just how confident the new coach and his team actually felt about their chances to succeed.
Something interesting happened a short time after that though, extraordinary actually. The music stopped, and U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati took the stage to address what could only be described as a guardedly optimistic crowd.
That was undoubtedly the loudest chant of the night to that point. Supporters sang earlier in the party as well, but never like this; never all together as one, never that unified. In just under a minute’s time, the U.S. fans who once held only glimmered faith . . . truly started to BELIEVE.
The night rolled on, and hundreds more U.S. fans continued to pile through the entrance until a sea of 2,000 Americans in red, white and blue filled the arena with little standing space between. Budweiser consumption grew (official beer sponsor of the party), the music blared, and the fans celebrated their presence at the world’s greatest sporting event.
The madness continued well past midnight, and after securing three points in a victory over Ghana the next day, the U.S. was ready for a rumble in the jungle against Portugal.
Manaus – Game 2 (6/21)
In order to attend the night-before parties in Brazil, FanHQ required fans to register online so the host could get an idea of how many people would be coming and book an appropriate venue. But even fans that didn’t register were able to get in the door.
Many U.S. fans decided against spending the high price it cost to travel to the Amazon and back, so I didn’t expect as large of a showing at the Manaus party as in Natal. As predicted, the size of the venue and crowd was substantially smaller . . . but it was no less enthusiastic.
The DJ rocked the house again and the fans danced the night away with their “One Nation. One Team.” scarves thrown into the crowd from the stage. While the second FanHQ party was not nearly as wild as the first, there was an added element of confidence among fans this time; confidence that wasn’t palpable until after the opening victory over Ghana.
The U.S. had escaped with three points in their first match, without playing anything remotely close to their best game. The general sentiment of U.S. followers was more or less, “Can you imagine what we can do if Michael Bradley and DeMarcus Beasley are on point?. . . we can beat anybody!”
Anybody? Even Portugal, the fourth-ranked team in the world? You better believe it. High fives were abundant the night before game two, and call me crazy but on this night it felt like they connected stronger and louder than ever.
The skepticism had disappeared entirely. The U.S. supporters were walking, talking and even dancing like underdog world-beaters who had all the other teams exactly where we wanted them.
Especially this guy . . .
*Note the full-commitment failure of a stage dive at the end. Can’t tell me that guy doesn’t believe.
Recife – Game 3 (6/25)
The USMNT had just come off its strongest performance against Portugal three days earlier, falling 30 seconds short of what should have been a massive upset victory and a ticket punched to the knockout round. Last-minute letdown aside, the U.S. followers never felt more confident that the red, white and blue had the will to take on the German team, ranked second in the world.
Back on the Brazilian coast with the full support of all U.S. fans once more, I expected nothing short of an absolute blowout for the final FanHQ party of the group stage. So when I looked online to figure out where the Recife venue was and discovered that the party was being held at a pizzeria . . . I had my doubts.
I was wrong. The venue was packed to full capacity with over 1,400 people by 10 p.m. With the opportunity to not only advance out of the group stage the next day against Germany, but to actually win the Group of Death, FanHQ and U.S. fans delivered a party not to be forgotten by anybody in attendance.
The atmosphere at the Recife night-before event was without a doubt the most electric of the three. It wasn’t as big as Natal attendance-wise, the stage setup wasn’t particularly extraordinary, and the venue was a little tight in capacity . . . but the party was other-worldly.
Oh, and hey, Will Ferrell showed up.
So that was pretty cool too.
I don’t know what my plans are for the 2018 Russia World Cup just yet. But I can guarantee you the first thing I do after booking my plane and game tickets will be to register for the FanHQ/USSF parties.
There’s something indescribably special about being part of an energetic crowd from your home nation, in a foreign country, all cheering and singing for the same purpose, for the the United States.
I guess the only way to begin to describe the feeling would be . . .
One Nation. One Team.