Kyle Wasarhaley cheers on the USA at Soldier Field World Cup viewing party during the USA match against Belgium in the World Cup July 1, 2014. | Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times
It’s hard to say how many of the 28,000 fans who showed up Tuesday afternoon at Soldier Field to watch Belgium beat the U.S. 2-1 in World Cup soccer understood that this was always the most likely outcome.
Maybe half the crowd was comprised of actual soccer fans.
The rest were folks who hate to a miss a free party, especially if they can wrap themselves in red, white and blue and maybe get a cameo on national television.
When the match was over, I didn’t spot any of those devastated faces in the crowd that you see on television when the other World Cup nations lose.
Disappointment sure, but not so much. It really was a good party.
“We showed we’ll be better in four years,” said the guy with the Captain America shield leaving the stadium with me. I’m pretty sure he was talking about the soccer team, although the parties should really be something by then.
As the game went into extra time, I had asked a pair of 22-year-olds from the Joliet area how it would turn out for the U.S.
“I think they’re going to win,” Adrian Marchan told me.
His buddy, Jesus Paramo, was more cautious. “If they go to penalties, they could probably win,” he said, no doubt thinking goalkeeper Tim Howard might give the Americans an advantage.
What did I think, they asked?
“I think we’re in trouble,” I said, which was more of a measure of me being a pessimist than any kind of expert — although I do claim to be the only soccer-playing daily newspaper columnist in Chicago (before my knee finally gave out last fall.)
Maybe I’d been influenced by the Somali cabdriver who dropped me off at Soldier Field before the game. He knew how it would end.
“All the African teams are out, and the U.S. will be next,” he said with the chuckle of the international fans who know Americans are just flag-waving chumps in this sport.
You may have asked yourself: Where do you find 28,000 people who can take off a weekday afternoon for a “watch party” under a hot July sun, besides at Wrigley Field, I mean?
Well, a lot of them were suburban teenagers from what I could tell. The 20-somethings maybe brought the average age up to 23.
I met Corina Plasencia and Alysia Byrne, each 16 and from Berwyn, where they met playing with the Berwyn Blazers soccer club.
The two girls had taken up positions in front of what they had deduced to be the national broadcast cameras in hopes of being the faces shown round the world when the U.S. scored the winning goal that never came.
They were competing with Jason Grovenburg, 27, of Wilmette, who told me he’d spent an hour and a half meticulously painting an American flag on his face and chest.
Grovenburg admitted that for him it was all about the face time.
“I was on [TV] last week, so I thought I’d try to get on again this week,” he said.
I asked whether he was taking off work.
“I’m looking for a job right now, so I have the liberty to take the day off and enjoy the game,” he said.
I understand there’s a lot of that going around right now, so I make no judgment.
Before the game, many of the early arriving fans kicked around a soccer ball, some in ball juggling circles in the manner of real soccer players, and others who just booted the ball high into the air to see where it would land in the crowd. Most of the ensuing headers were unintentional.
Covering politics for a living, it is not unusual for me to encounter people who wrap themselves in the flag, but I don’t think I’d ever seen so many individuals take it so literally.
In addition to the basic flagpole variety, I saw women in Stars and Stripes tube tops, halter tops and skin-tight leotards. (Hey, I’m a professional observer.) Then there are guys in Uncle Sam costumes.
Michelle Zabziewicz, 22, of Algonquin, and Nick Hevesy, 23, of Lynwood, were wearing soccer scarves, which struck me as an odd choice under the July sun.
“It’s not that thick, and it kind of catches the sweat off your neck,” Zabziewicz assured me.
The cold beers they were holding probably helped, too.
When Belgium scored its first goal, the first voice I heard after the groaning subsided was a guy chanting, “Let’s go Cubs. Let’s go Cubs.”
Moments later, a guy standing directly in front of me collapsed, and I can promise you it wasn’t because he was overcome with grief.