SAO PAULO – Lost amid all the talk about the World Cup making soccer grow in popularity within the United States is one very real and unexpected development taking place right here in Brazil.
The United States is growing in popularity within soccer.
Don't look now, U.S. men's national team, but you are increasingly becoming the second favorite team for a lot of folks from other countries, including the host nation.
"Brazil is falling in love with the U.S.," said Brazilian businessman Mario Ribiero, who partied with American supporters in Recife last week. "It is seen as something new and exciting and surprising. We love the team because it is an underdog. And we love the fans."
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Ahead of the U.S.' second group game against Portugal in Manaus, Globo – Brazil's biggest television network – conducted a live broadcast from a party jointly arranged by U.S. Soccer and the American Outlaws, the raucous, full-volume and wonderfully entertaining supporters group that seems to add fresh recruits every day.
The Outlaws is a genuine movement, and it is one that has found its identity. They are just as loud and enthusiastic as their counterparts from overseas, and, in a very American way, they have taken the best bits from elsewhere.
The Outlaws don't have the historical arrogance of England or the fatalist pessimism of Italy. They are short on the more abusive and insulting chants that soccer fans indulge in (although a couple have crept in) and a lot of the cheering blends things taken from Europe or South America, but even American college sports.
Their optimism is refreshing.
"If the World Cup – the pinnacle of England's favorite sport by a country mile – has shown us anything thus far this year, it's that the Americans are actually doing it right," wrote Liam Happe, an English sports journalist for Yahoo Eurosport. "I know who I'll be cheering for throughout the rest of the finals."
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Chile fan Edgar Miller, speaking in Belo Horizonte on Saturday, said his appreciation for American fans was as simple as a smile.
"We like Americans because you are happy," said Miller, two hours before his team was cruelly knocked out of the tournament by Brazil on penalty kicks. "Fans of Chile, we are always either nervous or sad. We expect to have our hopes taken away. We cheer for our team and we love them, but we have this history of disappointment."
The U.S. doesn't have that pain. Then again, America was a total non-entity in international soccer for decades.
While Chile was losing a heartbreaking World Cup semifinal on home soil in 1962 – and Spain was being knocked out despite coming in as one of the favorites – the U.S. wasn't even good enough to make the World Cup. And while the Americans' results have been solid since returning to the world stage in 1990, it's not like a whole nation was clamoring for glory until recently, even when the U.S. hosted the tournament in 1994.
American fans are optimistic because they haven't lived through generations of false hope and ultimate despair.
"We like your mental state," said a slightly inebriated German fan called Jorg (but who insisted on being referred to as George) at Recife airport on Friday. "[Americans] are likeable and friendly and your football [team] is the same. There are no, how do you say, villains. Americans have been the most fun to hang out with. And drink with. Good luck to you."
Of course, Mexico fans don't love the U.S. much, but that should hardly be a surprise given the nature of the soccer rivalry between the two countries. And they're heading home now anyways.
U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya fully embraces supporters of other nations making the Americans their second choice.
"It is awesome," Bedoya said. "The more support the better. It will help us get motivated. It is great."
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