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Divided loyalties at a local World Cup watch party

ODESSA — Both of them stare intensely at the conference room's flat-screen TV. Today, they're frenemies.

Stephanie Ries leaves no doubt about her loyalties. The executive assistant for Bauer Foundation Corp. and German citizen wears gold shoes, a black skirt and red top in a layered representation of Germany's flag. She bears a face-painted soccer ball on her left cheek; the German flag on her right.

In front of her sits co-worker Kim Schwartz, donning a red shirt with an American flag.

"We really, really like each other. We're all friends," Schwartz says. "This kind of puts a strange spin on things."

Anyone measuring workplace productivity would likely have noticed a dramatic dip for an hour or two midday Thursday. Germany versus USA. A trip to the second round at stake. World Cup fever had officially seized parts of Tampa Bay.

Some companies like website consulting firm Socius Marketing in Tampa held lunchtime watch parties. Others, like Grow Financial Federal Credit Union, are making the World Cup an extended celebration, giving employees a chance to root for different countries to win prizes.

The nationalistic overtones of Thursday's match, however, took on a whole new meaning for German-owned local companies, like Bauer Foundation. The construction contractor and builder of foundation equipment brought in sandwiches, Lay's chips, Chips Ahoy and Fudge Stripes cookies for a couple of dozen workers at its Odessa headquarters.

Mike Germana, CEO of the local operation, dreamed of beating his bosses back in Schrobenhausen, Germany.

"The agreement I have with my colleagues in Germany is that if the game is going well, they may receive a text message from me," Germana said before the match began. "If the game is not going so well, my phone is not working and I don't have good cellphone reception."

At kickoff, Ries is clearly out-numbered in the conference room, the lone German fan in a sea of American face art. There's Dennis Lugo, sporting a huge soccer ball drawing on his forehead, and Melissa Mafla, the unofficial office facepaint artist, who did her own stars-and-stripes makeup.

Doug McDonald, the human resources guy, flashes a stunning red star painted around one eye as he attempts the multi-task feat of eating, drinking, watching the game and clicking on spreadsheets on his laptop.

Operations manager Tom Hurley says he could see hosting another watch party — but only if the U.S. keeps advancing.

Ries, who was born in Munich, came to the United States six years ago to work for Bauer. But she makes the trek back overseas at least once a year to see her family.

Growing up, she wasn't a huge soccer fan, other than when the World Cup rolled around. But she's glad the United States is embracing the sport and even thinks her 3 1/2-year old daughter could have a knack for playing here … eventually. The last outing, Ries said, her daughter got discouraged. "She said, 'This is so hard and it's so hot out here.' "

Ries sighs watching the flat-screen as time after time, Germany blows scoring opportunities. In the first half, the game remains scoreless.

Brian Truglio looks bored. But then again, he really doesn't have a dog in the fight. "My team's Italy," he said. "I grew up in Italy … and they lost already."

At halftime, Ries walks outside the office to Bauer's manufacturing and repair facility next door. In a break-room, where a half-dozen workers are watching the game on a smaller TV set, she finally finds a compatriot in Jose Garcia.

Garcia is from Cuba, but admires the talented German team and wants them to go all the way.

"I've got my green card, and I get my citizenship later this year," Garcia says.

"What, for Germany?" teases Chase Gianoutsos from across the room.

Fifty-five minutes into the match. Germany scores the first (and what would be the only) goal, catapulting Garcia out of his chair, his hands raised in victory formation.

A grinning Gianoutsos indicates he's had his fill of Garcia. "He's about to get bounced from the break room."

Back in the office conference room, as the final seconds wind down, only a couple of stalwarts remain. Ries stays low-key about trumpeting her victory.

"I don't think I'm going to celebrate," she says. "Let's see how they do in the next game."

. Fast Facts

Florida's German-American connections

• Florida is home to over 250 German firms.

• German-owned companies invest more than $4 billion throughout the state.

• Total trade between Germany and Florida exceeds $3.5 billion.

• Top exports to Germany include aviation parts, recyclable metals, medical devices, and engines and turbines.

• About 200,000 German-born people live in the state, with another 2 million claiming ancestry.

Source: Florida chapter of the German-American Chambers of Commerce

Divided loyalties at a local World Cup watch party 06/26/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2014 10:39pm]
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