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Friday, January 27, 2023

World Cup frenzy floods UF, Gainesville despite U.S. elimination

Fans were up early Saturday to watch the U.S. Men’s National Team

<p>Spectators fill three stories of the Reitz Union to watch the World Cup match between the United States and the Netherlands Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. </p>

Spectators fill three stories of the Reitz Union to watch the World Cup match between the United States and the Netherlands Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.

Some fans wore classic jerseys. Others tied American flags around their necks as capes. Students waltzed around town in pajama pants. A bedazzled cowboy hat read “American made.” 

The commonality between all these get ups were three colors: red, white and blue. 

Gainesville residents took to UF’s campus and nearby sports bars to watch the United States Men’s National Team on the largest stage it's been on in years. After failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, it advanced to the round of 16 where it fell to the Netherlands.

The Reitz Union was packed with USMNT and Netherlands fans who had their eyes glued to a white board where the match was projected. Other students and Gainesville residents chose to fill out nearby bars like The Social at Midtown and The Swamp Restaurant. 

“U-S-A,” chants blasted through Gainesville, and fans united as they cheered for their country in the 2022 World Cup.

For a Saturday morning in the middle of final exams season, the Reitz was filled to the brim — a viewing place hard to come by.

People who arrived early found chairs, fourteen rows deep on two sides, set out for the event on the ground floor. Others made room by standing in clusters behind the seats, or occupying the stairways all the way to the third floor. 

Unfortunately for fans watching Saturday morning, the U.S. couldn’t get past the Netherlands, losing 3-1, and ending their World Cup journey. 

The World Cup, which started Nov. 20, is a soccer tournament of the highest national competition that takes place every four years, showcasing the world’s greatest players in the sport. Only seven nations have ever won the tournament since its inauguration in 1930.

Usually taking place in the summer, this year's tournament was changed to the winter season to accommodate for the scorching desert climate of this year's host country, Qatar. 

Venues across the globe are stuffed with fans of the tournament for every match. This was no exception for the U.S. match against Iran that had spectators fill in all floors of the Reitz like water in a cup, fitting everyone into the place to just get a glimpse of action. 

Tuesday’s match against Iran inspired various U.S. fans to show up for the Netherlands match, including Noah Almond, a 19-year-old UF industrial engineering freshman. 

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“[The crowd] was just everywhere,” Almond said. “It was just posted on everyone's stories, like everyone knew this was going on. So, I just wanted to be a part of it.”

Social media posts of Tuesday’s watch party were shared everywhere on campus. The Instagram account Barstool Florida, a direct affiliate of Barstool Sports that covers UF, posted multiple videos of fans inside the student union Tuesday and received thousands of likes. 

Andrew Stiener, a 19-year-old UF industrial engineering freshman, described himself as a casual fan of the sport, but still wanted to see the World Cup match. He found out about the event taking place at Reitz through barstool. 

“I saw some stuff on Barstool Florida about it for the last game and I just assumed that it would be on again today,” Andrew Stiener, a 19-year-old UF material science engineering sophomore said. “Turns out, it is.”

Jakob Ames, who operates the Florida Barstool accounts on both Instagram and Twitter, said someone sent in a video to him of people watching a Brazil match at the Reitz earlier this week. The next day, Florida Barstool posted a meme telling its followers to “Pack the Reitz” for the U.S. match against Iran. 

The rest was history. 

“I’ve never seen the place that crowded,” Ames said. “Obviously we wanted to support the USMNT, but the atmosphere at Reitz was really what we wanted to encourage. Everyone cheering and chanting felt like a taste of the Swamp.”

As many fans left disappointed Saturday after the loss, a small group continued to cheer. 

A handful of Dutch fans, wearing the iconic Netherlands orange jerseys, came out to support their team at the Reitz too. 

Lars Roelofsen, a 22-year-old law exchange student from Linden, Netherlands, said watching the World Cup with a big crowd at the Reitz felt like home.

“I kind of miss the World Cup feeling at home because it's crazy, but to see everyone is watching here, also Americans, it’s like a really nice atmosphere,” Roelofsen said. “I like [having] the World Cup feeling back.”

Roelofsen believed the American supporters really showed out for their team, he said. It’s nice to see U.S. soccer getting more support from fans in the nation, he added. 

“I hope Americans will be more into soccer because you're supposed to be one of the best countries,” Roelofsen said. “It’s just a bit weird that America’s never caught onto it.”

While most of the U.S. and Netherlands supporters exited the Reitz, some hung back, ready to watch the second World Cup match of the day: Argentina versus Australia. 

Harry Russell, a 21-year-old finance senior, and Aryan Singh, a 21-year-old finance senior, stuck around with Aussie flags draped around their necks. They previously watched the U.S. play the Netherlands without an allegiance to either side.

“The USA's always passionate about their country and it’s always good seeing the U.S. get into the round of 16,” Russell said. “It’s good to see the fans rally behind them. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the win today, but it was still a good battle for them.”

Russell, who’s from Australia, was excited to watch the Australian National team, officially nicknamed the Socceroos. It’s their first time in the knockout stage since 2006. 

“I’m very passionate of course,” he said. “As a nation that’s not really known for their football, it’s always good when the boys can get up and get into the round of 16.”

Students and Gainesville residents were just as busy supporting the team off campus as they were in the Reitz. 

Grayson Walter, a 21-year-old manager at The Social, said people have been very active in rooting for their teams throughout the World Cup.

Turnout at The Social was primarily in support of the USMNT, he said. The bar opened its rooftop at 9 a.m. — an area that usually wouldn’t open until 3 p.m. — and provided drink specials for the occasion.

“It's definitely exciting to get everybody rooting for the same thing,” Walter said.

Attendance for the U.S.’ matches is higher than for the other team, he said, but customers still come to support other teams like Argentina. Places around Gainesville have been busy, he said, including The Social and The Swamp Restaurant.

Aaron Alexander, a 26-year-old social media manager for UF IFAS, was at The Social wearing Pulisic’s name on his back. Alexander considered himself a USMNT fan as far back as high school when he also played soccer.

He expected a loss against the Netherlands, but he said the defense’s mistakes were ridiculous. The first and third goals by the U.S. opponent were wide open, Alexander said.

Despite the loss, he was encouraged by the team’s effort in the 2022 World Cup. Last time around, the team didn’t even qualify. This year, it was one of 16 teams to advance past the group stage.

“There’s a lot to look forward to, especially with the next World Cup being in North America,” Alexander said.

Dan Townsend, a 29-year-old software sales associate, has higher hopes for the future. The U.S. home-field advantage — the 2026 World Cup will feature matches in the U.S., Canada and Mexico — and its young roster will allow continued improvement, Townsend said. He said he thinks the next World Cup will give the U.S. its best chance to pick up some wins in the knockout bracket.

The USMNT has struggled winning matches in the knockout stage historically, doing so only twice, so Townsend was happy with the team’s advancement in this year’s tournament.

“The World Cup is a win for us just because we made it out of the group stage,” Townsend said.

Beckett Hamilton, a 21-year-old UF political science senior, played soccer in middle school, and his U.S. soccer fandom grew simultaneously. He bounced around from bar to bar as the USMNT progressed through the tournament, he said.

Hamilton called U.S. fans “cautiously optimistic” during this World Cup. There’s always the concern of whether the team will move on, he said, but the expectation for the 2022 squad was high.

“There was confidence there but nervousness as well,” Hamilton said.

The U.S.’ qualification and advancement to the round of 16 was a huge step in the right direction, he said. The team attracts a lot of attention to itself, Hamilton said, so its berth into the World Cup — which the U.S. missed in 2018 — was promising for the future.

“We’ve been behind our European, South American and Asian counterparts for so long,” Hamilton said.

Aidan Gulla, a 20-year-old UF sports management junior, said he’s supported the USMNT for more than a decade and since the team’s 2010 World Cup appearance. The U.S.’ team is trending upward following this year’s appearance, he said.

The U.S. dominated games, Gulla said, but its struggles to find the back of the net caused it to get eliminated. Despite the loss, the U.S. improved its reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world, he said.

“They made England bend the knee,” Gulla said. “We made other teams respect us.”

Contact Kyle Bumpers at Follow him on Twitter @BumpersKyle. Contact Brandon Hernandez at Follow him on Twitter @BranH2001.

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Brandon Hernandez

Brandon Hernandez is a student at the University of Florida studying journalism. He is a writer for The Alligator, Gator Country and for PlugTalkSports. You can find most of his work on his Twitter (BranH2001) and on his podcast, “The Courtside Podcast,” on Spotify.

Kyle Bumpers

Kyle Bumpers is a fourth-year journalism major and the sports editor of The Alligator. In his free time, he cries about Russell Wilson and writes an outrageous amount of movie reviews on Letterboxd.

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