In a year that has seen many U.S. soccer fans go from casual to fanatic, a small group gathered at Las Palmas restaurant for a break from their Monday routine to watch Mexico take on Croatia.
“It’s exciting. They’re two teams that are ready to go to battle,” said Tim Colla, who was watching the game with his co-workers from Saintsbury Winery. “I hope Mexico can bury something and keep creating scoring opportunities. It’s what we came to see.”
Las Palmas owner Juan Lopez and his staff opened their doors to anyone looking to take in the World Cup action from Brazil. The match between Mexico and the host country drew an unexpectedly large audience, which made for a great atmosphere, said one Las Palmas employee.
Monday’s crowd, though not as big, still shared the same enthusiasm that the larger group showed for the Mexico-Brazil game. With Mexico’s World Cup future at stake, the emotions on display ran the gamut from disgust due to missed calls by the officials, to intense elation when “El Tri” (referring to Mexico’s tri-color flag) began to pick up steam during the second half.
Colla described himself as a casual fan who enjoys World Cup soccer, but noted that he is not as dedicated to the sport as fellow Saintsbury employees Jaime and Manuel Torres.
“Mexico’s had many great opportunities, but they can’t make a goal,” said Jaime, after the first half of the game. “Mexico needs to win. They better win.”
Not short on drama, the first half saw Mexico midfielder Héctor Herrera’s long-range attempt bounce off the crossbar in the 16th minute, much to the dismay of the Las Palmas spectators. Dismay quickly turned to frustration after Croatia’s first uncalled handball of the game.
“The refs have been doing a good job in what’s been a pretty physical game,” said Gary Bulger, another self-described casual fan. “With limited referees compared to the size of the field and the number of players on the field, you’re not going to see anything better.”
As the second half began, all eyes were fixed upon the large television sitting atop a 7 Up beverage refrigerator. After a scoreless first half, the crowd was eagerly anticipating a more fruitful 45 minutes.
Croatia pressed forward as Mexico fans in attendance became more animated with each passing minute. Coach Miguel Herrera’s decision to introduce Mexico’s young striker Javier Hernandez was met with applause at Las Palmas.
When Croatia’s Darijo Srna blocked the ball using his arms (a blatant handball), the referee failed to make what many thought was an obvious call and award Mexico a penalty kick. The group let out a synchronized groan, as spectators began mimicking Hernandez’s gestures, while he repeatedly yelled “handball” at the referee.
“I mean it was kind of obvious,” said Manuel, a native of Michoacán, Mexico, about the second uncalled handball. “I really don’t understand why the ref didn’t call it. That call might come back to hurt us in the end.”
But instead of focusing on the botched call, Mexico responded with its first goal at the 72-minute mark, courtesy of veteran player Rafa Márquez. Appearing in his fourth World Cup, Márquez’s header sent those gathered at the Mexican restaurant into a frenzy.
Cooks, waiters and even the restaurant’s owner, Juan Lopez, gathered near the bar to watch the replay and celebrate the goal. Even customers who had not been paying attention to the game were sucked into the moment of elation and began applauding and cheering.
During the next 20-or-so minutes, the crowd continued to cheer, applaud and groan in unison, as both casual and longtime fans shared the visceral experience of watching World Cup soccer.
Mexico went on to win 3-1, securing a berth in the next round of competition. The U.S. team will fight for a spot in that round on Thursday, when the team will meet Germany. Match time is 9 a.m. Pacific Time.
For Nicolas Lopez, restaurant owner Juan Lopez’s son, watching an event like the World Cup as part of a larger community is something that cannot be matched.
“There’s just different feeling when you’re watching a game as part of a bigger group,” said Nicolas. “It’s an old-school bonding experience that is really special.”