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Fans out in force around Tampa Bay for World Cup kickoff

Luis Perez, 32, center, celebrates with fans at MacDinton’s in St. Petersburg on Thursday afternoon as his team, Brazil, pulls ahead.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Luis Perez, 32, center, celebrates with fans at MacDinton’s in St. Petersburg on Thursday afternoon as his team, Brazil, pulls ahead.

It may not be America's most popular sport — the other football still holds that honor — but the kickoff to soccer's World Cup managed to draw out die-hard fans in Tampa Bay.

At Woodfired Pizza and Nightlife in St. Petersburg, Brazilian native Yannick Yoshizawa, 24, mouthed along with the words to his national anthem just before players took the field for the 4 p.m. start against Croatia.

It was early, still the workday, and he was one of only three in the restaurant.

"We know that it's not one of the most popular sports here, but I would think that there would be more people here," Yoshizawa said.

They couldn't help but compare it to the splash in Brazil.

"Brazil has stepped up. Nobody's working," his co-worker Enrique Ruiz, 23, said. "Everything is closed, everybody is watching."

But the reaction around Tampa Bay wasn't completely flat.

At MacDinton's Irish Pub in South Tampa, the energy around the bar hit a fever pitch when it looked like Brazil was about to score. The play didn't go the way they expected, though, and the crowd groaned together in defeat.

"It's been shameful," said Marcelo Caruso, 41, of South Tampa. "We were expecting a lot better than this."

Caruso is from Rio. During Thursday's game, he kept in touch with friends who were attending the game in São Paulo through email on his smartphone. Plenty of people in Brazil didn't want the games, he said; they wanted hospitals and schools instead of stadiums.

At MacDinton's St. Petersburg branch, fans packed the bar and lined the street outside. Many were wearing the yellow jerseys of Brazil.

"It's trendy," Perry Anderson, 34, said. "It's like the Yankees."

Anderson, who works for a software company, wore a backward cap that said " 'MERICA" and a shirt from American Outlaws, a national group dedicated to supporting American soccer. The United States will play its first match, against Ghana, Monday.

"I want to see all red, white and blue in here then," Anderson said.

Anderson said he knows the sport isn't an American favorite. But he hopes the excitement of the games, which happen every four years, puts his favorite sport in the spotlight.

"You don't have to be a fan to root for your country," he said.

Meanwhile, Yelena Martic's husband wrapped her in a Croatian flag.

Martic said she understood why even non-Brazilians might sport a Brazilian jersey. Croatia, she said, is a small and relatively new country, formed only after the former Yugoslavia fell. Most of all, she just wants to see the sport she loves celebrated in her new country.

"It's nice for me to see the bar is full," Martic said. "And a lot of them Americans."

Martic left her job as a printer at BIC two hours early to watch the game, and planned to head in two hours late today She thinks the excitement will make her work harder to finish early as the World Cup rolls on.

As for predicting the outcome of the first game?

"You never know!" Martic said. "It's a sport, that's why we love it. Twenty-two crazy guys, running after one ball."

(Brazil later won 3-1).

The first day of the World Cup is pretty much a day off, Jonathan Terry, 27, of New Tampa said. If it were South America, his group agreed, nobody would be working all month.

"I pretty much lost a sale," Terry said, explaining how he was able to make it to a 4 p.m. game at MacDinton's in South Tampa. "I had to lower a sale by 10 percent so I could leave."

"I got here at 3:45," he said. "Thank God."

Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.

Fans out in force around Tampa Bay for World Cup kickoff 06/12/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2014 9:48pm]
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