World Cup Across America: Chicago

Portugal’s equalizer killed the party suddenly and absolutely — as though the power had gone out in the middle of the headliner’s biggest hit

Story and Photograph by Phil West


[T]he official U.S. Soccer watch party series at Chicago’s Grant Park was billed as as a “fan fest” celebrating the “spirit of soccer,” but Sunday’s U.S. vs. Portugal viewing looked more like a music festival. When gates opened at 2 p.m., a horde of waiting fans sprinted to grab spots in the front row, where a stage separated them from the giant screen. Later, a local radio DJ named J Niice (with two I’s) would announce the team lineups. Rainstorms the night before necessitated moving the watch party location from a grassy, spacious, and now-soggy part of the park to a fenced-off section of Balbo Drive, one of the park’s main roads. The move also meant beer sales, outside alcohol, bikes and skateboards were all forbidden.

This all prompted Tim Stegall, a 35-year-old middle school teacher, performance poet, and disgruntled Chicago Fire fan who’d managed to get his skateboard into the venue, to observe, “Well, there’s no beer, but at least there’s no dubstep.” Before the main act, Algeria and South Korea played an opening set. Red, white and blue inflatable beach balls magically appeared and began bouncing around the first tier of fans. As the “mosh pit” up front grew and grew, those with portable chairs retreated further back in search of clear sight lines. At one point, a fan dressed like Captain America crowd-surfed, riding a sea of hands for several minutes. And as they do with music festivals, some fans — especially younger ones — went beyond the de rigeur star-spangled adornment for more elaborate, eye-catching, attention-demanding costumes. 16-year-old Jack Buvey dressed as the Pope, with a U.S. Soccer crest attached to a makeshift mitre on his head.

At past public watch events for Gold Cup and World Cup matches, Buvey’s been a banana, a gorilla and Batman, but he feels that he’s outdone himself as His Holiness. Victor De La Torre, a 20-year-old from downstate in Charleston visiting his sister, dressed as a penguin with an American flag cape and rode someone’s shoulders for long enough that a pre-game chant of “Penguin! Penguin!” arose from the crowd. By game time, the fenced-off fan zone was full, and late-arriving supporters expressed their disappointment to security officials and the Chicago Tribune. A group gathered outside the fence and became progressively more boozy and riot-ready as game time approached. If you watched the match, you can likely predict how the crowd reacted to its key moments. Nani’s fifth minute goal created a general pallor for the crowd — especially for knowledgeable soccer fans registering disbelief that it was Nani, of all people, who scored.

With the U.S.’s accumulation of first-half chances, though, the crowd eventually drew more hope and energy, and Tim Howard’s miracle save of another Nani attempt late in the first half moved proceedings closer to the electric zone. And yet, right at halftime, many immediately sat down on the asphalt, as if conserving energy between bands at Lollapalooza while roadies broke down equipment. Police removed U.S. soccer banners from the outside ring of fencing that separated the fan zone from the late-comers, and the late-comers broke into a spontaneous chant of “Now we can see,” and opened more beers. The Jermaine Jones equalizer — a 64th-minute strike that seemed long in coming — set off celebration throughout the park, with one fan from Rowdyville throwing a nearly-full beer can that smashed against a fence and doused yours truly.

That began a transition to full-on, grimy, don’t-care-about-my-appearance music festival mode that was completed after Clint Dempsey’s go-ahead goal in the closing minutes, which prompted another fan to continue the projectile liquids theme with a shaken water bottle. The mood in the crowd was more expectant than nervous, and as extra time wore down, an explosion of joy and God knows what other liquids seemed imminent. Portugal’s equalizer killed the party suddenly and absolutely — as if the power went out in the middle of the headliner’s biggest hit. There was precious little soccer left to watch, and a crestfallen crowd made a unified mass exodus out of the area, only half-hearing the organizers’ thanks for coming out.

Where Balbo emptied out onto Columbus Drive, in front of a phalanx of police bikes that blocked off the street to car traffic, an impromptu pick-up game of street soccer sprang up among a few of the more easily-recovering fans. Reggie Jones, a 27-year-old Portugal fan from Chicago in a bright green jersey and matching scarf — his only chance of contrasting with the red-clad American fans — looked on. “I’m disappointed with the result, though I kind of felt like it would end up in a draw, because that’s how the World Cup is,” he said. “We barely pulled it off, but Varela saved us like he usually does. Now, we need help from the U.S. to advance, and then we have to win by four goals …”

And at this point, he very visibly and frownily began focusing on the numbers, wondering if Portugal really did need to win by four goals. This is the stage in the tournament in which fans must acquaint or re-acquaint themselves with FIFA’s perplexing tie-breaking rules and walk through all the potential scenarios. No one wants to practice addition and subtraction after a wild concert, but after a tense 90-plus minutes on Sunday, Portugal fans are feeling fortunate to be doing math at all.

Howler

Phil West (@philwest) is an Austin-based writer travelling around the U.S. and writing about this World Cup in preparation for a forthcoming book, We Want the World: Watching the World Cup Through American Eyes. Throughout the tournament, he’ll bring you along to share his viewing experiences.