Sunday, September 21, 2003

World Cup fans get their game on

Soccer watchers cheer on openers

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLUMBUS - When Dan Howett found out Germany would be playing at Columbus Crew Stadium in the opening round of the 2003 Women's World Cup, he didn't waste any time snagging three tickets for himself and his two sons.

The 38-year-old Finneytown resident showed up three hours before Saturday's Germany vs. Canada match with a homemade German flag taped over the windshield of his minivan.

"We didn't drive with it like that," said Howett, who used to live in Germany but says he's an American fan at heart. "We're honorary Germans today."

Like most of the 16,000-plus fans at Crew Stadium, How-ett and his sons were more than willing to drive a few hours to witness live World Cup soccer and join in the revelry that began in the parking lot hours before kickoff. Families with soccer-playing children celebrated the sport more than the individual teams.

The American team does not play here until next Sunday, so Saturday's contests did not matter so much to fans as the fact that the Women's World Cup is back in the United States for the second consecutive time. The SARS breakout in China forced tournament organizers to move it back to the United States, where it was a huge success in 1999.

Witnessing the matches on American soil served as something of a consolation for women's soccer fans here who were upset when the Women's United Soccer Association, formed on the heels of the World Cup success four years ago, folded earlier this week.

"It's just a bunch of people playing soccer and loving the sport," said Howett's son, 12-year-old Michael Rakoczy while taking a break from a nearby soccer game among a dozen or so boys and girls.

A neighboring tailgater, Kim Richardson from Detroit, wandered over, noticing the German flag on Howett's van. Richardson is a native of England and speaks with a heavy accent.

"There's only two teams that I support," she said. "England, and anybody else playing Germany."

The remark drew plenty of laughs from both camps.

"But I'm drinking his beer," she said pointing to Howett. "So I guess that's kind of cool."

On the other side of the parking lot, another group of Cincinnatians tailgated in true Cincinnati style by playing cornhole.

"I don't think anybody else will know what it is," said 25-year-old Corey Gooley from Milford, who rooted for Canada Saturday but will be back next week to cheer on the Americans.

The rest of his friends backed Germany, including Miles McDowell of North College Hill, who wore a Germany jersey and held a beer in one hand and a beanbag in the other.

"We're all here to support soccer because we all love it," McDowell said. "We all play soccer together, and in fact, we had a game this morning before coming up here."

Once inside the gates, the T-shirt line seemed to be the main attraction. Three 13-year-old girls from Chesterland, Ohio, were there sporting dyed red hair in support of Team Canada.

"We take French class in school, so we like Canada," said Jamie Barker, who is an avid soccer player with her friends, Jessie Haberny and Suzie Hanover. "We're really waiting for the USA, though."

That was the feeling among many fans, many of whom "adopted" one of the teams for the day.

Bill Bell-Streety came down from Ann Arbor, Mich., with his 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, a youth club soccer player.

Their family has Canadian roots, so they cheered when Canada took a 1-0 lead three minutes into the match. But Bell-Streety, who expressed disappointment over WUSA's demise, said it didn't matter what teams were playing, his daughter was glad to be watching the World Cup.

"She lives, eats and breathes soccer," Bell-Streety said. "We'll be back next week as well."

While the Bell-Streetys occasionally attend Columbus Crew Major League Soccer matches, the World Cup matches meant more to Sophia because it was women's soccer.

"I get to see people like me, girls, playing instead of men," Sophia said. "So I like it even more."

But she's eager to come back next week to watch the Americans, when a nearly sold-out 22,555-seat stadium should be much more raucous.



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