American Fans Join The World Cup Party In South Africa

How far has the U.S. advanced as a soccer nation? The men's national team has multiple fan clubs. There’s even a little trash-talking going on.

A fan in American colors at the U.S.-England World Cup match.

U.S. fans weren't afraid to show their colors at the U.S.-England match in Rustenburg. Stefan Fatsis hide caption

itoggle caption Stefan Fatsis

My section-mates for the U.S.-England game in Rustenburg were mostly boisterous 20-something American males sucking down Budweisers (the official beer of the World Cup) and cheering on their beloved Yanks.

One guy wore, from top down, a stars-and-stripes bandanna, stars-and-stripes bow tie, white button-down shirt, red-white-and-blue beads adorned with miniature flags, stars-and-stripes suspenders, stars-and-stripes belt, red-white-and-blue wrist bands and flag-red pants. His buddy sported a mohawk, the hair and the side of his head painted red, white and blue. Beneath the flag draped over his back and the Nike Team USA scarf was a collared white cotton jersey with a red shash and a USA shield; the back bore the number 10 and the name GAETJENS — Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian immigrant student/dishwasher hero of the U.S.‘s remarkable upset of England at the 1950 World Cup.

According to reports, 8,000 Americans bought tickets to the game compared to 6,000 English. In our section, we definitely outnumbered the opposition; the row of fans in front of us inexplicably left with about five minutes to go in the game, maybe to escape the assault of "U.S.A.!" chants. But from our mid-stadium vantage, it was hard to tell who got the better of the noise overall. (England definitely had the better of the banners draped from the stadium tiers. Despite the occasional American flag and a historically themed "1776 1812 1950 2010" sign, the U.S. was out-bannered about 200 to 1. The St. George’s Cross travels in packs.)

That the fan support was even close is a sign of how times have changed.

American flags at the stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa.

Although outnumbered by English banners, American flags were proudly on display at the stadium in Rustenburg. Stefan Fatsis hide caption

itoggle caption Stefan Fatsis

At the 1998 World Cup in France, I wrote a story about a young national-team fan club dubbed Sam’s Army. From hotel room to stadium, I took in the U.S.'s opening-game loss to Germany with a few members of the group. They were mild-mannered, well-behaved, and cautious, if not a little fearful, about wading into a den of hardcore European soccer fans. Today, the traveling bands of U.S. supporters are more secure in their place in the football world.

There’s a realization that international soccer fans rarely pose a threat, and also a greater acceptance of U.S. fans inside stadiums. Winning a few games on the world stage will do that. Tying England in the World Cup will only increase American acceptance (even if the English are blaming themselves more than crediting the U.S. for their failure to win).

U.S. fans break into song now, some specifically for England ("There were 10 British soldiers on a hill ... and the Continental army shot 'em down ... "), some even unprintable in full. ("Tim, Timothy, Tim Timothy, Tim Tim, ter-oo. My name is Tim Howard and I say ... ") The diehards know the game, and their running game commentary is both acerbic and informed. "That’s why Americans play goalie in the Premiership!" the fan standing next to me (real fans stand the entire game), a 26-year-old University of Maryland law student named Neil D’Arco, shouted after England goalkeeper Steven Green botched midfielder Clint Dempsey’s shot for the lone U.S. goal.

Sam’s Army still travels the world, but a few years ago some U.S. team followers weren't satisfied with its organization and formed their own group, American Outlaws. The Outlaws were represented in my row by Ian Ainslie, a 34-year-old architect and vice president of the group's Charlotte, N.C., chapter. The red-bearded Ainsley was topped by a Cat in the Hat American flag hat — which he warned the guys in the aisle behind him not to even think about removing — a blue USA jersey, scarves, etc. Before the game, Ian and another Outlaws leader seated nearby coordinated signals to start chants. (That plan didn't seem to work. We mostly shouted the old standard, "U.S.A! U.S.A.!")

Ian said the Outlaws were "taking over" from Sam's Army and had more members — though the groups' websites tell a different story — but he wasn't nasty about it. "We party together, we tailgate together, we do all the same stuff," he said. The groups also collaborate on a charitable venture called Little Feet that sends soccer balls to underprivileged children around the world, and which targeted South Africa in the run-up to the World Cup. In any event, Ian told me at halftime, the ethos of today's devoted American soccer fan — he attended every U.S. World Cup qualifying match but one — is to expand the fan base in the U.S., shrink the cultural gap with the rest of the world and have a good time, not necessarily in that order.

Ian said he and his traveling companions stayed in Rustenburg at a lodge that hosted about a dozen Americans and a couple hundred English. "We hung out together before the game and after the game we'll hang out together," he said. "One of us will be happy, one of us will be bent out of shape a little bit." After the whistle blew on the 1-1 draw, Ian and I and the rest of our section high-fived and hugged and serenaded the players when they jogged and skipped to our end of the stadium to acknowledge their supporters with soccer's traditional over-the-head claps. The Outlaws and the rest of the American fans were anything but bent out of shape.

Stefan Fatsis is a regular guest on All Things Considered. He’s also a panelist on Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen and the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic.

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