Cesar Gutierrez had a championship glow when he arrived at Mes Que, Buffalo’s soccer bar, just before noon on Monday. Gutierrez is a transplanted Texan, a native of San Antonio, and his beloved Spurs had won their fifth NBA title the night before.
But the serious stuff was yet to come for Gutierrez, a soccer lover who is a proud member of the Outlaws, the national fan club for the U.S. national team. He wanted to settle in early for the first day of action in Group G, the so-called Group of Death.
The noon game featured Germany and Portugal, the second- and fourth-ranked teams in the world. Six hours later would come the match U.S. soccer had waited for since 2010, the opener against Ghana.
“I took the day off to be here,” said Gutierrez, who works at Home Depot. “I’m not leaving. I wanted to make sure I had a good spot for the U.S. game later.”
There was a large crowd for the noon game between the top two teams in the group, two deep around the bar at Mes Que. But it was nothing compared with the mob that would pack the Hertel Avenue establishment later in the day.
“It’ll be a madhouse,” said Scott Jones, who was cooking sausage on the back patio, where a large-screen TV was embedded in a brick wall. “You won’t be able to move in here.”
Madhouse doesn’t quite describe the scene at Mes Que for the U.S.-Ghana game on Monday, a gripping match that left local and national soccer fans beaming with pride and wondering if there might be remarkable things in store for the national team.
Buffalo’s soccer fans were certainly ready for the moment. By 5 p.m., Mes Que was packed. You could barely move inside or out, where the bar owners had put up a tent to hold the overflow of fans on the patio.
Fans were lined up on Hertel Avenue, down to the adjacent North Park Theater, hoping to get in. Shortly after 5, they were told there was no more room. Some stayed on the sidewalk to watch the big TV above the patio. Others drifted off to other Hertel taverns to watch.
“I didn’t realize how much interest there was in soccer here,” said Stu Riddle, who came from Michigan to coach the UB men’s team 18 months ago. “This is absolutely incredible.”
Jeff Fabin, president of the local chapter of the Outlaws, echoed Riddle’s sentiment. Fabin started the Buffalo chapter, one of 130 in the country, in April of 2011. This is their first World Cup. He had no idea it would catch on so fast.
Rich Namulala, who played soccer at Kenmore West and Buffalo State, stood near the door of the bar, wearing a tee shirt from the 2002 World Cup. “Back in 2002, if you went into a bar, you would have to convince them to put the World Cup on,” he said.
There was no such problem inside Mes Que, where six TVs were all tuned to the World Cup and fans were gearing up for the game by singing soccer chants and breaking into cries of “USA! USA!” The singing was virtually non-stop, from “The Saints Go Marching In” to a takeoff on an old pop song: “We love you, we love you, we love you, and where you go we’ll follow, we’ll follow.”
The most popular chant was one where a fan would holler, “I”, then “I do” and “I do believe,” leading up to a rousing crescendo of “I do believe that we will win!”
Who said soccer was boring? I thought I had been transported into an English pub. There’s something rowdy and infectious about a soccer crowd. Of course, after all that buildup, you figured it would settle into one of those long, tactical 0-0 affairs.
But barely had the bar sang a rousing version of the National Anthem when Clint Dempsey left-footed a shot past the Ghana goalkeeper, just 33 seconds into the game. It was the sixth-fastest goal in World Cup history and inspired bedlam in the bar.
I have to admit, I got a little caught up in it. As a reporter, it’s rare that you’re thrown into the middle of a crowd, where you get swept up in the energy of the fans. As people high-fived over Dempsey’s goal, it occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced anything like it since going into the stands for the second half of the Bills-Houston comeback game.
This was soccer, though. The Americans spent the next 80 minutes protecting that slim advantage. Ghana was carrying the play. They fired a shot over the crossbar. Tim Howard made a big save. You could sense the mounting unease in a savvy soccer crowd.
“I don’t like this shell,” says Frank Strangio, who coaches a youth team. “I think they’re being way too conservative.”
It was hot in the bar. The floor was sticky from spilled beer. At around the 80-minute mark, someone threw something at the bar. It was the only unruly act in the entire night. While fans were wondering who was the guilty party, Ghana scored to tie it.
Ghana continued to press, and I was thinking the Americans would be fortunate to hold on for a draw. Then, suddenly, they were awarded a corner kick in the 86th minute. The ball came to the front and John Brooks headed it home for a 2-1 lead.
Itmade the celebration for Dempsey’s goal seem like a wake by comparison. Every person in Mes Que began jumping up and down, hugging and crying in exultant huddles. I thought the floor was going to collapse. Beer was flying. I got a beer shower.
People were chanting “USA! USA!” so loud it made your ears ache. They reprised all their favorite songs and mixed in a couple of thunderous echoes of “Whoa, uh, oh oh oh oh oh!” Hey, you had to be there.
They had to wait out five excruciating minutes of extra time. The chanting never let up. The U.S. cleared the ball away and cleared it again, and finally, at 94:45, you knew it was over. The “USA!” chants were deafening. The floor shook. People clad in red, white and blue capes and bandanas hugged like little kids.
I found Gutierrez, who had settled into one spot, four people deep, in the middle of the bar. He took his bandana off his face. The Outlaws always wear it that way during games. He hugged everyone he could find. Even me.
So, I asked, was it better than the Spurs?
“Yes,” he said. “Always, always.”
Gutierrez said he wasn’t thinking about a draw near the end. An Outlaw never thinks about a tie. I asked how it had felt when Brooks scored the winner.
“Greatest feeling in the world,” he said.
And to think, it was only the first game. Imagine if the U.S. makes a Cup run. The floor actually might collapse.