The American flag draped over George Plakas’ shoulders was red, white, blue and brown — from the beer and dirt stains, of course.
As the USA-Belgium soccer match got underway Tuesday afternoon, the flag had already been worn as a cape-like talisman for two of the previous three World Cup matches featuring the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“After a lot of usage and celebrations, yeah, it’s a little dirty,” said Plakas over the cacophony of blaring TVs and crowds of chattering, cheering people inside Centre Street Pub in Schenectady.
The one USA game he didn’t watch from the pub on North Broadway, he watched from home, convalescing after wisdom tooth surgery. Otherwise, the General Electric employee has been at Centre Street.
Luckily, he says, his boss has been accommodating of his soccer fandom.
“They’ve been phenomenal about this, actually,” he said. “They just love the patriotism part of it, I think. As long as we get our job done for the day, they’ve been great at allowing us to leave early.”
America’s historic lack of enthusiasm for soccer, at least compared to its international counterparts, appears to have been replaced by rabid fandom this summer as the U.S. team advanced through the World Cup tournament’s group play before falling just shy of the quarterfinals, thanks to a 2-1 defeat to Belgium on Tuesday.
Capital Region bar and restaurant owners say World Cup fever is hotter than it’s ever been, and they’ve capitalized on that fever with early happy hour specials and watch parties. Wolff’s Biergarten in Albany, a self-proclaimed lover of German beer and soccer even when it’s not a World Cup year, has celebrated with regular block parties featuring a soccer tent, beer truck, commemorative steins, food and music.
Centre Street Pub has been the place to go for World Cup viewing in Schenectady. Manager Lee Bodofsky thinks it may have something to do with the relatively new establishment’s embrace of international cultures.
“We’re an international restaurant that features international dishes,” he said, “so we view the World Cup not only as a sporting event, but as a cultural event. It’s something that’s closely tied to us. With Schenectady’s obvious diversity, we have a lot of different people of a lot of different backgrounds who have come to us.”
People have been scheduling their work around the games, Bodofsky said, either by taking extended lunches, taking vacation days or sneaking out early to catch an afternoon game.
Glen Sanders Mansion was counting on Scotia residents and local employees getting out of work early Tuesday to catch the USA-Belgium match. For the first time ever, the mansion decided to host a watch party in its ballroom, where three 11-foot projection screens make a perfect venue to watch a sporting event live.
“We’ve never done this before, but if it goes well then maybe we’ll do some more,” said Sue Luraas, senior marketing manager. “Soccer is just so huge now. Who isn’t watching soccer, you know?”
Katie O’Byrne’s scheduled happy hour specials Tuesday for the World Cup crowd, as well. Manager Kelly Cowell expected a big crowd for the 4 p.m. game.
“We’re doing it because a lot more people are showing interest in soccer,” she said. “There’s a big push toward soccer, bigger than we’ve ever seen before. I’ve noticed a bigger trend, too, with kids at school getting into it.”
Four years ago, the last time the World Cup was held, DZ Restaurants spokesman Bill Gathen would only have expected the “diehards” to show up to watch games live at local restaurants and bars.
“But now, you have casual soccer fans turning out to watch,” he said.
For that reason, DZ Restaurants decided to start happy hour a little early at Pasta Pane, its Clifton Park restaurant. There was no need to start it early at Boca Bistro in Saratoga Springs, said Gathen, since the bar was already open by the time the game started Tuesday.
“The bar at Boca is very large, with a number of televisions on each side,” he said. “We have had the games on nonstop during the day, so people have been coming in nonstop, too. I’m actually surprised to meet somebody who is not into the games. I think it’s the patriotism. I think this year the fever has really been hyped up because the games have been so amazing.”