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Young face of soccer in America on display in Grant Park

Updated: June 23, 2014 5:14PM



The city could have — should have — held this hoopla in a much bigger venue.

“Yeah, it was supposed to be down there,’’ a cop at the corner of Balbo and Columbus in Grant Park said Sunday. He was one of many policemen turning thousands away from the World Cup screening inside the fences. He gestured south.

“But the grass down there was under three inches of water.’’ Summer rain from the day before.

No need for this to be Lollapalooza or Woodstock.

This was simply a chance for those in downtown Chicago to gather in front of a large video screen near the lake and watch — for free — the United States play Portugal in a World Cup match in Brazil. But the city underestimated the good cheer and eagerness and demand for this global game by a whole lot.

The vibe was, in fact, one of a rock concert, with soccer and youth and patriotism as the core enticements. Old geezers might not understand that soccer has ever so slowly invaded our culture. They might not like the way it has infected us with this weird hands-free thing played by dudes with one name and the feet of ballerinas.

The stretch of pavement on Balbo, from Columbus to Lake Shore Drive, was determined to be the best place for this social event, and it was too small and too narrow by at least half. No, by a lot more. Even before the game started at 5 p.m., throngs of fans decked in red, white and blue were turned away.

There was a smattering of Portugal fans in the crowd, but they were relatively unassuming. And their deep crimson shirts did not stand out like the orange of the Netherlands or the green of Nigeria might have.

A riot or trampling was a concern, I suppose. Anytime you get jacked-up kids, anything is possible.

But it was amazing how connected the crowd was, how happy to be here, how centered around a national team and how peaceful yet keyed-up it was. Some fans climbed the 8-foot chain-link fences and tried to storm the place. A few got in, but most were rebuffed. Thousands of people outside the venue climbed trees and stood on rises and peered in for mere glimpses of the screen. And even if they couldn’t see, they cheered along with the main crowd whenever something good happened for the U.S.

Two young men, one wearing an American flag and an Uncle Sam hat, stood forlornly on Columbus after being turned away. Where were they from, I asked.

Jordan, they said.

Why were they showing up for this sports viewing?

“It’s fun,’’ said the flag-wearing one, whose English was hard to understand and who identified himself as “A.B.’’

Where would they watch the game now?

“On ESPN,’’ said the other one, glumly tapping his smartphone which carried the game. “But it’s not like this.’’

His name is Sami John, and he and his pal are college students, as so many of those in the crowd seemed to be. And high school students. And young parents with small kids. Youth.

Four Notre Dame students, in Chicago for summer work, were decked out in flags, red-white-and-blue sunglasses and face paint.

Again, why come to this huge public gathering, where everyone would stand for every second of the game, on concrete, a football field away from the screen that should have been so much bigger it would have dwarfed the “Trump’’ sign over near the Chicago River.

“To show patriotism,’’ said Andrew Borchert. His pals, Ryan Majsak, Patrick Cross and Anastasia Evanich, all nodded.

But it was more than that, too. They loved soccer. And they love the feeling of community that only humans display, just to be as one.

“We wanted to be with everyone to celebrate,’’ Cross said.

And celebrate the crowd did, when the U.S. tied the game at 1-1, and then took the lead at 2-1. There was a feeling of brotherhood that was impossible to deny. Not nationalism. Not aggression.

Just the feeling of being with friends, loving the same thing.

The final goal by Portugal with seconds remaining, making the game a 2-2 draw, brought a sad silence to the crowd. But it was the sadness of losing a sporting event, not a war, not a street fight, not even a screaming match.

It had been a good game. And earlier, when the image came on of three spectators there in the stands in Brazil — three young Americans dressed as Superman, Superwoman, and Batman — the crowd again laughed and cheered.

Pure American.

We give the world some great things, don’t we?

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

Twitter: @ricktelander



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