On the morning of Aug. 28, 2005, when most New Orleanians were fleeing the city, the members of Finn McCool’s Football Club were gearing up for a soccer game the next day.
The team, which had formed five months before, was unnerved by the swirling hurricane that was barreling toward the Gulf Coast. As the day progressed, weather forecasters continued to predict the worst, and the urgency to evacuate increased.
That night, the team captain finally cancelled the game.
“It wasn’t an organized evacuation,” recalls Stephen Rea, a long-time team member and author of “Finn McCool’s Football Club: The Birth, Death, and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead.” “Everyone haphazardly left.”
During the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Rea, who ended up in Houston, was plagued with worry, wondering what had happened to his teammates.
Although there were a few Americans on the team, most of the men were expats from Europe, South Africa and Central America. And many of them had planned on staying in the city.
“A lot of these guys were expats, so they had nowhere to go,” said Rea, a native of Northern Ireland. “It’s not like they had relatives that lived in Thibodaux. These guys had relatives on a different continent.”
Soon, emails began flying back and forth between the team members, alerting each other of their whereabouts. Many were scattered around the country; others had gone back to Europe. A few remained in New Orleans and experienced the wrath of the storm.
One Dutch team member, who lived near Finn McCool’s Irish Pub, was forced to swim out of his house as it was engulfed by floodwaters. The team’s Scottish soccer coach was swept out of bed by a rush of water and carried down the street. He sought refuge on the roof of a house, where he stayed for nearly three days in the heat until he was rescued, exhausted and severely sunburned.
Toward the end of September, members of the team began trickling back into the city. By January 2006, the roster included 16 people. Finn McCool’s Football Club played its first game that following March, a mere seven months after Hurricane Katrina. Off the field, the men helped each other rebuild their houses and celebrated holidays together.
Their hideaway, Finn McCool’s Irish Pub, was destroyed by the storm, but rebuilt by its owners and their friends. It reopened in March 2006. The Mid-City bar is now a popular destination for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and a hub of activity during both minor and major soccer games.
This past March, Dublin’s Irish Times newspaper included Finn McCool’s on a list of the top 10 Irish bars in the world outside of Ireland.
When Rea chronicled the team’s experience into a book, released in 2009 by Pelican Publishing Company, their popularity skyrocketed.
Soccer players from all over were eager to join the team. Dozens of fans attended the games.
When Rea would wear his soccer jersey, people immediately recognized the team, the pub, and the book. And sometimes, they even recognized Rea.
“We called ourselves the most famous team in the world,” said Rea. “We weren’t some pub team with old guys who could hardly play. We were having teams from other continents who wanted to come play us.”
At one point, they had so many players that they split the league into two divisions. But as the years went by, they went back down to one division. Rea’s team won the first division three times, and Sunday, July 12, marked their fourth time winning the second division.
New players have come and gone, but Rea is the only member of the original team. On Aug. 29, the current team will “replay” the first match that took place in April 2005. Afterward, they will head to Finn McCool’s Irish Pub for a party, where they will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Finn McCool’s Football Club, and commemorate Hurricane Katrina. “Finn McCool’s reopened the same week we played our first game, so we’ve always been inextricably tied to the pub,” said Rea. “We’re proud to be associated with it.”