PARIS -- Here at the World Cup, English and Tunisian fans are hurling rocks at each other and smashing store windows. Germans in black leather jackets are swilling beer and shouting insults. Kilted Scots are mooning pedestrians and being tear-gassed by cops.
And in a Paris hotel room, some of America's most notorious soccer fans are getting ready to rumble. Bruce and Steve McKibben don red, white and blue Cat-in-the-Hat-style chapeaux. They drape American flags over their shoulders like capes. Bruce puts in his contacts, Steve packs a poncho and they roll up a laminated banner -- "Florida Brigade: McKibben Brothers" --to hang in the stadium for their wives and kids to see on TV.
"Tickets, camera, moolah!" Bruce says, high-fiving Steve as they head out the door. "Brother, we are here!"
Yes, the Yanks have come to the world's soccer madhouse, and the world isn't exactly shaking in its cleats. In a sport where fans are popularly perceived as thuggish louts -- Britain and the Netherlands dispatched antihooligan squads to France months ago to plan security -- a small group of Americans who follow the U.S. team's every dribble form a sort of collective soccer antifan. They don't fight. They don't drink excessively. They don't taunt opposing teams or supporters. They're mostly, well, nice.
"Americain?" a French policeman asks as a pack of U.S. fans boards a subway car. "No proh-blem."
Of course, a big reason U.S. fans are no problem is that there aren't many U.S. fans. Several thousand Americans are in France for the World Cup, but most are connected to official U.S. soccerdom or corporate sponsors. The face-painting, noise-making hard core numbers around 300. For the U.S. game against Germany this past Monday, the official U.S. fan club, Sam's Army, received just 150 tickets in the 49,000-seat Parc des Princes stadium.
This matters little to Sammers, as members of the three-year-old club call themselves. After all, they are used to being outnumbered, even on home turf. Their goals: to support the team, have a good time and educate sit-on-your-hands American sports fans in the art of nonstop cheering. They also want to dispel the notion prevalent among Americans that all soccer fans are brutes. "Soccer fans? Here to cause trouble?" an American tourist in Paris asks Sam's Army member Mike Reeves, a 41-year-old computer-software engineer from Rockledge, Fla.
Not these folks. But the World Cup is the first trip for Sam's Army outside North America, and in its first game the U.S faces a soccer powerhouse whose fans might include a few skinheads. The U.S. naturally inspires resentment, even in soccer; one German fan shouts at a van carrying guests of sponsor Hewlett-Packard, "You don't have a bleeping thing to do with this sport!" As a result, the founder of Sam's Army, a paunchy 31-year-old schoolteacher from Buffalo, N.Y., named Mark Spacone, admits he's nervous. "I don't want to be a target," he says.
His fear demonstrates the sociological chasm between soccer in the U.S. and the rest of the world. In many countries, soccer is the opiate of the masses. In the U.S., pro sports are synonymous with skybox-dwelling suits more than working stiffs, and soccer is a suburban game with scant popular appeal. Not exactly a petri dish for class warfare.
"They're middle class, middle income, educated -- about the least likely people to cause any shenanigans," U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg says of American fans. Adds U.S. coach Steve Sampson: "We're not going to get things thrown at us by Sam's Army. We're not going to get signs threatening my life."
Indeed, Sam's Army pledges it "will not promote nor tolerate violent or racist behavior in any form." Sammers admit to a few drunken loudmouths, but only a handful of altercations. Some Bolivian fans once rained water bottles on them. When a Sammer got into a fight with a Guatemalan fan, Mr. Spacone lectured him, "You do that and you don't sit with us." Last month, Sammers shushed when someone jeered the Scottish anthem.
At 5 p.m. Monday, nine Sammers, all in red, white and blue, head out to the stadium from their hotel for the 9 p.m. Germany game. The McKibbens --Bruce, 45, a lawyer in Tallahassee, Fla., and Steve, 39, an electronics technician in Melbourne, Fla. -- are the oldest of the bunch. Like other American soccer crazies, the McKibbens came to the sport late in life. Bruce didn't kick a ball until he was 25, Steve 19. Now they play and watch fanatically. Bruce, quick-witted and compact with a well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, leaves his law practice early on Mondays and Wednesdays to watch soccer on television with his son. Steve, bulkier with sandy hair and bright eyes, is missing his wedding anniversary, his birthday and Father's Day for this World Cup road trip.
The brothers estimate they have spent at least $10,000 apiece on their soccer travels the past couple of years. In 1996, they drove 28 hours round-trip to Richmond, Va., to watch the U.S. beat Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier. Last month, Steve was attacked by two pit bulls while jogging on the morning of a flight to a U.S. game. He told the emergency-room doctor: "Can you hurry up? I've got to catch a plane for a soccer match." (He watched from home.)
"It's real easy for me -- love for the game and real patriotism," Bruce says of his middle-age obsession. Adds Steve: "I think that's part of the attraction. This is a constructive way to be patriotic and for that to be cool again."
The road from the subway to the stadium is crowded. Like most European soccer fans, many of the Germans are friendly, shaking hands and taking pictures with the Americans. Others, drinking six-packs on the sidewalks, are indifferent or downright hostile to some Sammers' innocent, if misguided, attempts at cultural exchange. The tension is real. "A German just came up to me and said, `You see all these guys? Hooligans. Big hooligans. Over here, you OK. Over there, no,'" Mark Spacone's brother, Chris, a 36-year-old Air Force Reserves mechanic, says.
The McKibbens size up the foreign fans before making overtures, but they have fun. Bruce energetically explains the symbolism of the U.S. flag to a French TV station. Sammers trade songs with some Germans across the street. ("Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be. We're going to beat Germany. Que sera, sera.") The polite Americans even sing a German tune.
"Football, basketball, baseball -- no hooligans in America," exclaims a 24-year-old German, Joachim Buhler. "I find it wonderful."
At 7:30, the McKibbens are seated -- five rows from the top of the stadium. The chanting begins immediately. There's the obligatory "U!S!A!" A round of "Yes! We! Can!" Bruce manages to hang the brothers' banner down at field level. When the U.S. team enters at 8:16, Bruce and Steve wave their flags and whoop. Fans chant the names of the U.S. players; one of them, Eric Wynalda, acknowledges the cheer with a wave. At 9:01, as the teams line up for the kickoff, Bruce takes a deep breath and pumps his fists.
Nine minutes later, Germany scores, deflating the U.S. partisans, especially non-Sammers who don't follow the cheerleaders. "That's so disappointing that they scored so early," Bruce says. A few Germans begin taunting the U.S. section. "You're s--- and you know it!" they sing. The Americans don't respond. (They do, however, chant "Bulls---!" loud enough for the entire stadium to hear after a disputed call by the referee.)
In the second half, Germany scores again. With the U.S. down 2-0, even Sam's Army can't maintain its requisite 90 minutes of noise. The game nearly over, Bruce sits -- a no-no in the Army. Steve rubs his neck. "Come on, brother, you can do it, two more minutes." Bruce grimaces and stands. He's disappointed by the loss. "Dadgumit," he says.
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