The U.S. is not among the 32 nations participating in the the FIFA World Cup, which begins June 14 when host nation Russia faces Saudi Arabia. The U.S. is missing the tournament for first time since 1990. Its elimination on Oct. 10, 2017 was a shocking disappointment for many U.S. fans. But it was a big letdown for Stephen Rea, a local writer and native of Northern Ireland. He had almost finished a book that was supposed to be an American soccer fan’s companion guide to the cup when a loss to Trinidad & Tobago, then ranked 99th in the world, eliminated the U.S.A. from the tournament.
“I was in Northern Ireland when it happened,” Rea says. “It took a catalog of events to converge (for the U.S. finally to be eliminated). As the night went on, I could sense it was happening. I was following it on my phone at 2-3 in morning.”
[jump] Rea overhauled the project, and his World Cup Fever (Skyhorse Publishing) was released nationwide in late April, and Rea currently is on a tour of the U.K. and Spain to cover the cup, including for The Advocate. His book is a quick primer on the history of the World Cup and the continuing sagas of various national teams. Will the Brazilians recover from a devastating 7-1 loss to Germany that destroyed its bid to win the cup when it hosted the competition in 2014? Will Germany repeat as champions? Can any team not from Europe or South American claim the trophy? How will Iong-shot Iceland fare?
Rea grew up in Northern Ireland and has watched the World Cup’s four-year installments since 1978, when host Argentina beat the Netherlands. Over the years, he’s been to two cups and only missed a handful of cup games, he says. If he was staying here in New Orleans for the month of the tournament, he’d be at Finn McCool’s Irish Pub early many days for games. He ‘s there every week following his team, Chelsea, in the English Premier League, and reading the questions at Monday’s pub quiz.
Rea started watching international games at Finn McCool’s when he first moved to the city in 2004. He even helped organize a club team of soccer-loving ex-pats from around the world. But before it could play a game, Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures intervened. Rea published Finn McCool’s Football Club, about his experiences bonding with other soccer fanatics before the storm and chronicling the rebuilding of the bar, its community and New Orleans. The book was published by Pelican, but Skyhorse sought the rights to issue a paperback version. It then turned to him to write the fans’ guide to the World Cup.
The World Cup draws the attention from millions if not billions of people around the globe, and there are all sorts of stories surrounding the competition. Will the games resemble the spectacle of the Sochi Olympics? Will the Russian soccer “hooligans” who brawled in France during the 2016 European championship disrupt these games? There also are bribery and doping scandals.
But Rea’s book is about what happens on the field. He answered a few questions for Gambit.
Gambit: Since Americans can’t root for their national team, who should they get behind?
Rea: The way to go with Americans is everyone is from somewhere. If your great aunty Jane came over on the Mayflower, go for England. The first thing to do is have a look at your lineage and see if there’s anything there to cling to.
If that doesn’t work, is there a more tenuous reason? I’ll be supporting Portugal because my step-dad is Portuguese. So is there someone in family or you work with? Or a boyfriend or girlfriend.
If not, you can go down to the pub and see who’s most fun. The Australians are fun.
If you like blondes, follow the Danes or the Swedes.
If you want to drink and learn swear words in the cyrillic alphabet, then Russia is your team.
Gambit: What new players will emerge as stars?
Rea: There’s a German forward named Timo Werner. I think he’ll be a break-out star. I like Eden Hazard, he plays for Belgium. He also plays for Chelsea, my team. The Croatian, Luka Modric. I think those three players should do something and catch the eye.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Lionel Messi (Argentina) and Neymar (Brazil) are biggest players in world. They are one-man teams. Portugal and Argentina have plenty of good players, but not at the same level as those guys.
Gambit: Who will win?
Rea: I think the Germans will win. They’re fabulous front to back. The Brazilians if they get in their stride — they have a lot of talent and a lot of flare. The next two are the French and Spanish. It’s not just that they’re packed with talent, but they’re used to performing on the big stage. They play at the top level in (leagues in) England, Spain and Italy. They’re used to playing at the biggest events.
Gambit: Who are the biggest surprise teams in the tournament?
Rea: Iceland and Panama. I just went to Panama to see Northern Ireland play. It’s Panama’s first World Cup.
Iceland is a tiny country with 320,000 people. That’s the size of Lexington, Kentucky. And they qualified for the World Cup. Some of its best players play in England and Sweden, but there is an Icelandic league. When (Northern Ireland) lost to Iceland, it was seen as national disaster. But then they beat England. They qualified in a tough group. They’re not a flash in the pan.
Gambit: What do you think about America’s future in soccer?
Rea: I’ve been here 14 years and I’ve noticed a change. When I first got here, it used to be three or four people watching games in the pub. Now it’s packed. People watch games from the German, Spanish and English leagues.
It’s always confounded me that lots of people here say they played soccer, or their kids play soccer, but what happened? I’ve never gotten a proper answer why people lose interest in the game. But Major League Soccer is getting better. It's packed with home-grown players and players from Central America.
World Cup games and highlights will be broadcast at many bars. Finn McCool's Irish Pub (3701 Banks St.) is a hub for viewing international competition, including games broadcast live at early morning hours. Casa Borrega (1719 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.) will open at 10 a.m. and host viewing for two games per day during group play. There also will be a menu of breakfast tacos and more. Felipe's Mexican Taqueria will host game watching parties for Mexico's games at its Mid-City location (411 N. Carrollton Ave.).