Watchers at the World Cup

To the extent that sports have meaning, that power comes out most directly in how they become social. There is absolutely enjoyment to be had in watching a game alone. It affords you the ability to focus very directly on the action, but that’s the bonsai tree of fan cultivation: precise, manicured, quiet, exacting. The wild, overgrown garden of fandom is enjoying a game with others — friends and strangers — and while there’s nothing like the atmosphere of a live experience, there’s a special kind of vibe to a watch party.

Just before 9:30 a.m. on the first day of World Cup action, a small throng of people gathered outside the doors of Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis. The Anglophilic pub generally doesn’t open until 11 a.m. — they don’t even have breakfast. But for the World Cup, all bets are off. As the tournament’s first match between host country Russia and Saudi Arabia got underway, fans sprawled on the lawn watching a big screen TV. Some had mugs of coffee, leaning back on their elbows as a breeze rippled across the rooftop bowling green.

At tables arrayed around the green and throughout the interior, there were kits from Brazil, Germany and Costa Rica, among others. There were Messi kits from Barcelona and vintage Argentina kits. In the far back corner of one of the rooms, a woman and several kids in local soccer kits watched from couches as Russia scored the tournament’s opening goal. Two men in their thirties sat with an older man at a high top table, talking in what sounded like hushed Russian, one of them wearing a kit with Cyrillic writing stamped across it. A trio of guys in their twenties with different Mexico kits conversed in Spanish upstairs. Some intrepid morning viewers even came alone, sitting with laptops at smaller tables, possibly mixing business with pleasure or filling out a last-minute bracket.

The mood is less “rowdy British pub” and more “weekend brunch,” but it is, to be fair, just the first match and one without the potential fireworks of Spain versus Portugal. After getting in front early, Russia never looked back, eventually racking up five goals and collecting the clean sheet. But even if the fans at Brit’s Pub didn’t end up around the bar, yelling and screaming, erupting in cheers or dissolving in tears, this generally mellow watch party was still fundamentally social.

When we go into public to watch an event like the World Cup, whether we’re wearing our country’s kit and maybe our hearts on our sleeves or not, it’s a little affirmation that there are things bigger than ourselves worth coming together for. Sure, the spectacle of the event can verge on the ridiculous, Robbie Williams, and there is of course the endless carping about who’s in and who’s out. There are concerns both petty and gross about the scaffolding around the World Cup, but the game itself persists in its power to bring people together. If you can, get out into public for a match, if for no other reason than to watch the people watching the World Cup and get a feel for the different ways people follow and get into the game.