Long-awaited World Cup party starts

The monthlong celebration that began at The Londoner Pub & Grill on Thursday afternoon was nearly four years in the making.

The Baton Rouge-based marriage of rabid soccer fans and European-style soccer pub was formed in the wake of the last men’s World Cup, back in 2010.

After experiencing the passion, camaraderie and enthusiasm of that World Cup at another local sports bar, Mark Jones immediately started forming a soccer club and seeking a home base with a soccer-specific atmosphere.

About that same time, Chip and Audrey Gary and John and Jeffrey Cheng were opening The Londoner, a replica of their favorite hangout while they lived in Dallas. They had the property before the World Cup began but didn’t finish the soccer-related renovations and open until that November. They later added their signature double-decker bus in the parking lot.

“We just missed the last World Cup, and we were sick about it,” Audrey Gary said as a crowd of 100 or so patrons watched Thursday’s opening match between Brazil and Croatia. “We’ve been preparing for this for the last four years. We’ve been counting down the days. This is our big event.”

Thursday’s event was a sort of friendly for The Londoner, a tune-up for the United States’ first match Monday — just as the 2011 women’s World Cup, the 2012 London Summer Olympics and regular weekend-morning English football leagues matches have been.

“That’s going to be on a different level,” Audrey Gary said of the U.S. match vs. Ghana.

The patrons sat among a string of flags from each of the 32 teams participating in the World Cup. In the center — literally and figuratively — sat Jones, the Baton Rouge chapter leader of the American Outlaws soccer club.

Jones formed the group as the 46th chapter in an organization that now has 137 chapters and more than 19,000 members nationwide.

The approach of the World Cup has been the equivalent of a PBS pledge drive in drumming up interest and membership as chapters have sprung up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and New Hampshire in the past week and a half after meeting the criteria of 25 members and “a dedicated bar.”

The Baton Rouge chapter has added 15 members this week to bring its total to 115, about a dozen of whom are in Brazil for the start of the tournament. In all, more than 1,000 members of the American Outlaws made the trip, most on the two 747s the organization chartered.

“It’s the biggest event in the world,” Jones said.

Though the U.S. matches will be the main event, the host country was the center of attention Thursday.

The crowd reaction was a mixture of excitement and shock when Croatia took a 1-0 lead after 10 minutes when a Brazilian player accidentally knocked the ball into his own goal. Less than 20 minutes later, the favored Brazilians scored a tying goal and the score was 1-1 at halftime.

Marcela Holmes, a native of Brazil who’s a student at LSU, was watching the match with six relatives and friends, most of them sporting Brazil’s signature yellow, green and blue. She said she wasn’t relieved when the tying goal was scored.

“We’re just tied,” she said. “We want to win.”

Eventually, they did, as Neymar scored on a penalty kick a little more than 70 minutes into the match for his second goal and the decisive one. Many in the bar groaned and booed at the referee’s questionable call that led to the penalty kick. A final goal during extra time made the final 3-1 and enabled Marcela to relax.

“Now, I’m very happy,” she said moments after the match ended. “But we can do better.”

Marcel’s mother, Silene, moved to Baton Rouge just before the 2010 World Cup to help Marcela raise her young daughter, Isabella, after Marcela’s divorce. They watched the World Cup at home, but this time they were surrounded by dozens of kindred spirits.

“This is great, because we can see the soccer together with so many people,” Silene said. “We’re so happy, because almost everyone is cheering for Brazil. Most people know Brazil because of soccer.”

Mark Marinoff, whose wife, Silvana, is a friend of Silene’s, said those at the table from Brazil saw the hosting as a “double-edged sword.” The spotlight that shone on the host country highlighted not just the country’s soccer tradition and exotic culture but also unrest and other ills within the country. Strikes and riots were taking place as the tournament got underway.

“I’m rooting for Brazil to go as long as they can,” said Jason Bordelon, who co-hosts a local radio show devoted to soccer. “I don’t think they’ll win the tournament but, as long as Brazil is winning, the country will be at peace.”

Last week, Bordelon was among the representatives of 87 American Outlaws chapters who were in Jacksonville, Florida, for the U.S. team’s final warm-up match, a 2-1 victory against Nigeria.

He said he would be back at The Londoner for each match during the 32-day event. The afternoon start times are far more convenient than the early morning and middle-of-the-night starts at recent World Cups in South Africa and South Korea/Japan.

Erica Heagy, one of The Londoner’s managers, was busy trying to accommodate the eclectic crowds she anticipates. A man from Argentina, who will be arriving in Baton Rouge on business, called earlier in the week to reserve a table for Sunday. In addition, Heagy added Xingu, a Brazilian brew, to the more than 100 beers already on the menu.

She said the pub also has “beefed up” the staff. Ten servers, compared to the usual three for lunch, were working Thursday, and more will be needed when the U.S. plays. Three new big-screen TVs were added, and some chairs will have to be removed to allow for more elbow room during U.S. matches.

“I wrote on my Facebook page that Wednesday was our Christmas Eve,” Bordelon said. “I feel elated now that it’s underway. Each day is Christmas all over again.”