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Tampa Bay Rowdies fans still rabid after all these years

The World Cup starts Friday. But soccer fever here began in April with the rebirth of the Tampa Bay Rowdies after a 17-year timeout. The team that was the only pro sport in town in 1975, that draped 30,000 fans per game in green and gold at old Tampa Stadium, is back. • So are the fans. They're wearing their old green and gold jerseys and striped knee socks to Steinbrenner Field. They're painting their faces. They're drinking dollar beers. They're playing it again, that old song of theirs: • "Oh, the Rowdies, oh the Rowdies, the Rowdies are a kick in the grass." • (The next home game is Saturday at 7 p.m. against the Montreal Impact.)

Mary first saw Dieter at a Mother's Day Rowdies game. She saw him screaming at a linesman. Her girlfriend knew Dieter. The girlfriend offered to play matchmaker.

"Oh my God," Mary said, "that German guy who talks so much?"

For his part, Dieter wasn't enthusiastic either.

"That Polish girl with the thick glasses?"

That was 27 years of marriage and two children ago. He's 66 now. She's 62.

Dieter and Mary Karnstedt come to Rowdies games dressed alike in outfits she puts together. He once played soccer for the German army and considers himself the ultimate authority on any close call. He still yells at linesmen.

"They call me a troublemaker," he said. "Mary tells everyone to pull my suspenders."

She crochets green and gold scarves for players who score a goal. She has given away 13. She has four more at home. Each has a different pattern.

Dieter has a photographic memory. "He's like my uncle, the golfer, who tells you every stroke he made on every hole," Mary said. "Dieter can tell you every play of every game.

"But he can't remember Mother's Day."

Karl Mohler swears he heard angels sing when he again found the Rowdies. They sang "Glory be to God!" After one game shouting his own Glory Be's, he lost his voice for two days.

Mohler, now 30, saw the Rowdies for the first time when he was 4. His parents and 30,000 other "Fannies" made old Tampa Stadium rattle and roll.

He played youth soccer for 10 years and committed himself so thoroughly to the German national team that he tattooed his leg black, red and gold. It may not have been entirely accidental that he became a head cook at Bern's Restaurant, whose owner, David Laxer, also owns the reconstituted Rowdies.

When he slips into his socks, shorts and jersey, he's a walking green and gold souffle.

Andrea Marlow, 15, strives to be the Rowdies' most creative fan and therefore has committed to painting her face a different way for each game. At home game No. 1, she went with one side of her face yellow, the other side green, with a white stripe down her nose. At game No. 2, she showed up with one half of her face white, the other half striped yellow and green.

She goes to games with her dad, Vance Marlow, a coach for the HC United Soccer Club of Tampa. She's captain of one of the girls teams.

He wears one of Mary Karnstedt's crocheted Rowdies scarves. He won a scarf at a preseason benefit, but gave it to a defenseman who worried he'd never earn a scarf by scoring a goal. When Mary heard that Vance had helped a poor, scoreless player, she made him another.

The divas of Ralph's Mob stayed up in Zephyrhills the night before the game sewing their green and gold tutus. Their Ralph's Mob is the reincarnation of the team's original fan club and cheering section named after mascot Ralph. Its headquarters is MacDinton's Irish Pub. Its first act of public-spiritedness this season was to sponsor dollar beer night.The tutu divas each carried two cups. They are, from left, Lily Janes, 27, Shawna Dias, 25, and Heather Hiott, 27. Janes' father tried out for the Rowdies in 1978. He made it until the last cut.

Elio Navarro, 30, and his wife, Jessica, 26, became soccer fanatics six years ago when Elio started playing power wheelchair soccer with the Tampa Bay Crossfire. In 2007, he played on the United States National Team. The team won the first Powerchair Football World Cup, beating France in a penalty shot shootout in Tokyo.

Rick Cundiff, 51, is a lifelong member of Ralph's Mob. He wears the same outfit — note the cape — he wore to Rowdies games throughout the '80s, including a prized Ralph shirt from the late '70s.

Meghan Poole-Van Swol, 29, rarely missed a game with her dad in the '80s. David Van Swol was then fighting brain cancer. "The times I remember being happy were at Rowdies games with him." So now she brings her three children. She wears her dad's jersey. "It's a great full circle," she said. In pale green face paint, they look like they could be in Cirque du Soleil. Ava, 4, is on the left, and Beckett, 18 months, and Logan, 6, are on the right.

Tampa Bay Rowdies fans still rabid after all these years 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 6:09pm]
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