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World Cup games kick up some local interest
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Sean Oliver, left, and Lewis Berry, watch the beginning of the World Cup match pitting the United States against England on Saturday at the Mellow Mushroom restaurant in Gainesville. The teams tied 1-1. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Across the globe, millions are watching as the World Cup continues this week. And though some in the community might not realize it, Gainesville is watching, too.

“I think there are a lot more soccer fans out there than people realize,” said Gainesville resident Mark Turner, who played soccer for Washington and Lee University as well as Lakeview Academy.

Turner ducked out of work Friday morning to watch the opening game between South Africa and Mexico, and he said he would probably get together with friends to cook out and watch some of the other matches.

Even non-soccer fans watch when they’re connected with the countries involved — such as Saturday’s match between the United States and England.

“They know England and they know America,” Turner said. “I don’t care what sport it is, they’re going to watch it. There’s history there.”

On Saturday at the Mellow Mushroom restaurant on Green Street in Gainesville, more than a dozen soccer fans gathered around the flat-screen televisions to watch the much-hyped game over pints of beer.

“It’s one of the biggest games in U.S. soccer history,” said Sean Oliver, 22, who wore a U.S. soccer team shirt. “We have a great chance of getting far in this World Cup. We have a great team; anything’s possible.”

Trey Bowling, 22, noticed that the turnout to watch Saturday’s game, while modest, seemed better than the previous World Cup.
“I like that more people are coming out,” he said. “It seems like it’s becoming a bigger deal in America.”

Bowling said sport’s biggest stage, watched by millions across the world, helped create a global connection between Americans and other nationalities.

“It’s something where I feel like we become involved with the rest of the world,” Bowling said.

And Turner said Gainesville might have more soccer fans than other parts of the state because of the area’s large Hispanic population.

“Basically in Mexico and countries like that, soccer’s it,” Turner said. “That’s all they know, and they love the sport.”

Oscar Saenz, manager at Gainesville’s Mestizo Southwest Grill, said he would definitely be eyeing the computer in the restaurant’s kitchen for score updates and watching the TVs in the dining room when he can.

“It’s very exciting because in my country (Mexico), everybody loves soccer, and it’s the national sport for my country,” Saenz said. “What I’ve seen in the U.S., it’s more for American football and baseball. I haven’t encountered Americans who like soccer, but still, it’s growing.”

El Maguey on Browns Bridge Road also will show the games throughout the World Cup. Manager Robert Figueroa said he had a bigger crowd than usual on Friday morning, most with their eyes on the first match.

Figueroa said the sport is catching on in the area.

“It’s becoming like football now,” he said.

Jed Carter, who coaches soccer at the club level, has seen this growth firsthand.

“The bottom line is Georgia youth soccer has some of the best talent in the nation,” Carter said. “You just don’t hear about it. It’s not well publicized.”

He said part of the reason was that most scholarship money in America is put into sports such as football, baseball and basketball — not soccer — so people just don’t pay attention.

“Soccer, unfortunately, I call it the orphan of American sports,” Carter said.

Carter said he will be watching the event as much as possible because it only comes around every four years.

Juan Christiansen, another Gainesville soccer fan, also is tuning in for the big event — but he might be heading to Atlanta for some of the bigger games.

He said the bars and restaurants in the Atlanta area have more viewing parties and places to gather with fellow fans to watch the match — an atmosphere Christiansen said is worth the trip.

“It’s got a good following (locally),” Christiansen said. “But it’s not as popular as some of the other sports around here in town.”

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