They sprawled on beach blankets on the lawn at Brit’s Pub, watching a large television resting atop an ad for Minnesota United. They crowded tables at The Local and tilted their chins toward the elevated screens.
All along Nicollet Mall on a beautiful Saturday morning, international soccer fans wore their national colors, sang and peaceably assembled to watch the World Cup, the tournament’s drama transcending time zones.
We’ve seen a fast-break, last-attack, game-winning goal, when Belgium went end-to-end to beat Japan, and we’ve seen upsets, and tableaus from Russia of skill and passion that should make even anti-soccer holdouts appreciate The Beautiful Game.
Saturday morning, England earned its first semifinal berth since 1990, setting up a chance at its first Cup championship in 52 years, with a 2-0 victory over Sweden. Saturday afternoon, as the sun beat down on Brit’s lawn, Croatia defeated the host Russian team 4-3 on penalty kicks.
The semifinals will feature France vs. Belgium and England vs. Croatia. If the tournament has become Eurocentric, Minneapolis’ soccer pub hubs were distinctly Anglo-centric on Saturday.
“We won, two-nil! Ah!’’ said Shah Hilali as he left The Local. He was wearing Union Jack shorts and a Union Jack beanie. “The awareness of real football, as we call it — the game you play with your foot — is growing. I’m happy to see a lot of Americans who are not supporters of England or Sweden coming in to watch the game. It’s great.’’
Not to be outdressed, Janice Biorn wore a large, Union Jack-inspired fuzzy top hat, an England World Cup T-shirt and red-inked St. George’s Crosses on her cheeks. Thirty years ago, the Minnesotan married an Englishman. Saturday, she watched the game with her children, who are British citizens.
“This has been absolutely fabulous,’’ she said. “Especially for those of us who are England fans. Four years ago, England didn’t even make it through the group stage, so this is really exciting.’’
Valid Serhan, The Local’s general manager, said fans have been filling his pub throughout the World Cup. “It’s been more fun than rowdy,’’ he said. “They all behave, believe me. They get loud, that’s about it.”
Near the back of The Local, Gail Asche gathered with a group of friends. She wore a 2018 World Cup scarf that she won at the pub, and wrapped herself in England’s flag. She also punched the air after each goal, and explained her excitement in a quintessential British accent.
“We always come here because we’re Arsenal fans, and this is an official Arsenal pub,’’ she said. “This has been amazing. It’s been a long time coming for the England squad. It’s well-deserved. It’s nice to be among some ex-pats that know what it feels like to cheer for England.’’
Can she put the World Cup into perspective for American football fans?
“If you imagine what the Super Bowl, the World Series, and all of these other [American) tournaments would be like if they were rolled into one, this is it,’’ she said. “This is our national pride. And it’s been 52 years.’’
England has thrived with a young team seemingly unscarred by its country’s previous failures. Harry Maguire scored the first goal on a header off a corner kick, giving England more goals off set pieces during this World Cup than in the three previous combined.
Maguire, a defender, had never before scored an international goal for England. His first proved to be all England would need. When goaltender Jordan Pickford made a series of spectacular saves, those wearing Tottenham, Arsenal, Vauxhall, Triumph and Union Jack T-shirts streamed into the sunshine on Nicollet, some smiling, some singing.
Some would return to watch Croatia and Russia create another classic, in what one broadcaster called the greatest World Cup ever.
“It’s been tremendous,’’ Hilali said. “Cheers!’’
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org