COLUMBUS – A lone Ivory Coast fan stood out among the dozens of Brazilian fans gathered around one of the numerous screens inside the Stadium Club of Crew Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Or, maybe he was simply a Didier Drogba fan who used a blue marker to fashion “Drogba” and the number 11 on the back of a white T-shirt.
Certainly the Ivory Coast needed more support on the field in South Africa and at the viewing party in Columbus where more than 200 yellow-clad Brazil backers outnumbered their counterparts 20-1 to see a 3-1 victory.
Eight years and two World Cups later, Crew Stadium continues to draw all segments of the population after becoming an overnight sensation, literally, during the 2002 tournament.
“Futbol is a religion in Brazil,” said Andre of the five-time champions. “You want to share that passion with people with similar interests.”
That’s why he found a seat among like-minded fans while enjoying the free admission, snacks and soft drinks provided by the Crew.
“One of the things that amazed me in 2002 was the diversity of Columbus showing up for the World Cup,” Crew president/general manager Mark McCullers said. “We’re still seeing that. There’s people from all walks coming out and watching.”
Obviously, the biggest turnouts this year have been for the two U.S. matches with a combined attendance of around 3,000.
Overall, the crowds are nothing like the 25,000 who watched the 64 matches of the 2002 World Cup—the first time Crew Stadium was opened for viewing parties—but McCullers sees the big picture.
“In 2002, we were the first and only,” he said. “Since then there’s been a lot of pubs, in particular, putting their stake in the ground and saying they want to be the soccer venue in Columbus. It’s a much different environment. It’s good for soccer in this country.”
Several of the watering holes drew four-figure crowds for the U.S.-England on June 12.
“It’s awesome that the American fans are getting into it,” Crew defender Frankie Hejduk said. “Fado (Irish Pub) the other day had a thousand people. Years ago you wouldn’t have seen that.
“It’s a young crowd. That means the sport is going to continue to grow,” he added. “They’ve really taken to soccer because they realized it’s the best sport in the world and there’s a reason why all the rest of the world loves it.”
Hejduk played for the U.S. in the 2002 World Cup that was held in South Korea and Japan and said he was unaware of the big crowds at Crew Stadium. By the end of the tournament most everyone else in the country did.
The amazing part was that the games were televised in the wee hours of the morning in Columbus yet that didn’t stop the soccer fanatics. More than 3,000 showed at 2:30 a.m. to watch the U.S. tie South Korea and a few more were there for the final group match vs. Poland at 7:30 a.m.
A giant screen was placed outside the Stadium Club for the 2:30 a.m. start of the round of 16 match against Mexico, and more than 4,000 people cheered the U.S. to victory.
By the time the Americans kicked off with Germany in a 7:30 a.m. quarterfinal match on a Friday morning the viewing parties has been featured in USA Today and numerous other newspapers across the country and ABC, CBS and NBC did morning show remotes from Columbus on match day.
An estimated 7,500 fans saw the U.S. lose in what was the largest viewing party in the country—nearly double the crowd at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. McCullers said he expects Crew Stadium will continue to be a destination to watch future World Cups even though computers and cell phones give people easier access to the games. High definition TVs and free wireless connections were added this year at the Stadium Club to attract fans.
Who knows? By the 2014 World Cup in Brazil McCullers might be handing out funny glasses so people can watch in 3D.
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