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When the Polish team captain Robert Lewandowski stole the ball from Abdulelah Al-Malki in last Saturday’s World Cup match between Poland and Saudi Arabia, and went on to score his first goal ever in the tournament, the Poland fans at Cleos Bar and Grill in Chicago erupted in cheers.
“Oh, that’s it! That’s it!”
Fans ordered shots to celebrate. It wasn’t yet 9 a.m.
Two hours earlier, just before the sun had fully risen, I joined the 20 to 30 soccer fans already settled at the pub’s bar and high-top tables, watching the teams warm up on numerous TV screens as they nursed water, coffee, and Bloody Marys. As one might expect, the early-morning crowd cared deeply about the tournament and their chosen teams. What struck me most was that virtually everyone was either a first- or second-generation American.
The world’s game has been infamously slow to come into its own, stateside. But America’s taste for the sport is growing. Regular-season MLS viewership is up 16 percent over last year and, over its past two seasons, the Premier League increased its American audience by an even greater margin. And this World Cup already has one of the largest U.S. audiences in FIFA’s broadcast history—more than 15 million viewers watched the U.S.-England game on November 25.
Dedicated soccer bars are nonetheless relatively uncommon in American cities. People come from all over the Chicago area, and beyond, to catch games at Cleos. The pub offers a rare midwestern window into a global sport obsession. It also attracts a breadth of immigrant cultures that infrequently come together in one place.
Majed Al Turki and Fawaz Al Wael, a pair of Indiana University students from Saudi Arabia, were there on Saturday morning with rolling suitcases in tow. Following the Saudi team’s triumph over Argentina in one of the biggest upsets of World Cup history, the duo rescheduled their bus tickets back to Bloomington so they could watch their country’s next game among fellow soccer fanatics. Although I was surprised that they were the sole Saudi Arabia supporters in the house, it made sense to find most people rooting for Poland. Illinois accounts for nearly one-third of the total Polish-immigrant population in the entire United States.
Greg Gaczoi, one of the many Poland fans I talked with at Cleos, characterized his ilk as “pessimistic, loud, and proud.” The description matched the energy in the bar that morning—arms were thrown in the air after missed shots and fans were yelling at the flatscreens in front of them. But Gaczoi was happy to be watching the game at Cleos, rather than a bar in his native Poland, because of how its crowds reflect the city’s dynamic immigrant mix. The matchup between Poland and Mexico was a perfect case in point: Chicago has one of the largest Mexican populations in the U.S., including more than 200,000 Mexico-born residents.
“What’s great is that there’s so many Polish and Mexican people in Chicago that it [created] this incredibly diverse, but weird, dynamic,” Gaczoi said of that match. “Before the game actually happened, there were jokes going on about how the city is going to burn down.”
Joanna Szczudlo also watched Poland, her team of choice, play Mexico in a packed—and divided—Cleos. Though she was still lamenting Lewandowski’s saved penalty kick in that game, which was blocked by the goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, she couldn’t help but cheer for the great play. “If Mexico goes further, it’s kind of like a part of our city is going further,” Szczudlo told me. (On Wednesday, Poland advanced to the next round of matches and Mexico was eliminated.)
Alex Lopez, who arrived at Cleos at 9 a.m. to secure a comfortable spot for the afternoon’s Mexico-Argentina match, attributes the swell in support to the diversification of America’s top players. He told me that it finally seems as though the United States team “represents the country we live in—a country built off immigrants.” According to a survey conducted by Morning Consult, soccer’s U.S. fan base is similarly more diverse—and younger—than that of any other American sport.
For some, the global element of soccer is part of the game’s appeal. “Seeing the Mexico fans crying in the stands of happiness after Lewandowski missed that free kick is just something you can’t, as a U.S. fan of sports, relate to,” Mark Wojtowicz, a second-generation Polish American who’s cheering for Poland and the U.S, told me. “You might see meathead, drunk college fans crying because they’ve been tailgating since seven in the morning, but not, We saved the free kick. I’m so happy that I’m bawling. That’s what I’m here for, to catch a slice of that.”