GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany—A thousand people wearing American flags on their hats, their shoulders, their pants gathered Monday on a cobbled square just outside a pub near the center train station in this German industrial town and screamed "The Star-Spangled Banner" for all they were worth.
Beer bottles shattered as the singers got wilder. Children covered their ears and giggled when the fans got obscene. It was four hours before the United States would play the Czech Republic in a soccer game—a game that finished 3-0 for the Czechs—and the first showing of what's by far the largest ever traveling contingent of U.S. men's soccer fans was making itself heard.
Fifty yards away, two young men from Prague smiled as they watched the pandemonium.
"I wasn't expecting this," said one of them, Mila Janacek. "I thought nobody in the United States cared. Your fans are crazy. I like them."
If the U.S. men's soccer team arrived internationally four years ago by making the quarterfinals of the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, maybe its fans arrived Monday. Rowdy, obnoxious and mostly in red, they packed the trains that were streaming into Gelsenkirchen. Perhaps the biggest compliment paid, in a place that's used to fanatical soccer fans, was that the locals simply dismissed them by noting that they were just like all the other fans.
Take Collin Cook, a 30-year-old American from Minnesota who lives in Madrid, Spain.
"We've been loud at the stadiums for a while, but now we're starting to take over town squares," he said.
He'd even showed up without tickets, just to soak up the atmosphere around the game.
Jim Moorehouse, a spokesman for the U.S. Soccer Federation, noted that "there are more U.S. fans at this World Cup than at all the others combined, if you exclude the one that we hosted."
American fans bought more "team-specific packages"—groups of tickets that allow fans to follow their teams through the competition—than any other nation that was coming here. The United States received an allotment of just under 10,000 tickets for the games, and sold them in a day. It petitioned for more, got 7,000 and sold those to fans on a waiting list.
Moorehouse said fans also could buy tickets directly from the Federation Internationale de Football Association, the world organizing body of soccer, and that he suspected that many European nations had far more fans present. The Czech Republic was estimated to have twice the fan presence at the game that the U.S. had. But the American presence is growing.
And passionate. Even as the game slipped away Monday, the American crowd continued to chant "U-S-A, U-S-A" and groan at every missed opportunity.
The passion was evident Monday on a train from Berlin to Gelsenkirchen that had been specially arranged to accommodate fans. Martin Essenburg, 45, of Miami Beach, and his son Matthew, 24, of San Diego, were wearing new U.S. jerseys, excited about their first World Cup games. They didn't even attend when the competition was in the United States in 1994. But Matthew Essenburg is the seemingly mythical fan whom American soccer officials have been awaiting for decades: the kid who grows up playing the game and becomes a big fan as an adult.
Despite millions of little kids clogging soccer fields, for decades, that fan hadn't appeared yet. Maybe until now.
"Hey, it's my game," Matthew Essenburg said.
"It's the only sport he ever seemed to care about," his father said.
The train was peppered with men in their late 20s and 30s who grew up on the sport and now declare themselves hooked. They said the U.S. was their team, but they got tickets for whatever they could and attended games such as Serbia-Argentina, Poland-Ecuador and Brazil-Croatia.
A few said they'd paid more than $300 a ticket online.
Peter and Stevan Galich, brothers who live in Los Angeles and Chicago, have attended the last four World Cups. They were meeting a large group of friends for the game, wearing the red colors of Sam's Army, a group for U.S. fans.
"I can't imagine missing a World Cup," Peter said. "I'm already looking forward to South Africa in 2010."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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