A change swept through the state capital last weekend for the first time in four years. It is a sensation that causes typical Louisianans to suddenly care about soccer and turns even the novice soccer fan into an expert.
World Cup fever has returned to Baton Rouge.
“The World Cup is a lot like the Olympics in how big and important it is,” said history senior Will Thomas, who viewed most games at the Varsity Theatre. “For America, this is pretty much it for competing internationally, so this is pretty much the biggest thing.”
The World Cup began June 12, and Baton Rouge sports fans have packed local bars to watch the international tournament since the opening match. The tournament ends on July 13, and the attendance in bars is expected to remain high by many bar owners.
Employees at The Londoner Pub and Grill on Sherwood Forest Blvd. are happy to see the tournament arrive. The bar is known for showing games from the English Premier League, and many employees see this year’s tournament as the biggest event they’ve ever hosted.
“We’ve been waiting for this since we opened almost four years ago,” said restaurant co-owner Audrey Gary. “This is our Christmas, our Super Bowl, our Mardi Gras — whatever you want to call it, because we consider ourselves the home of soccer in Baton Rouge.”
On Saturday, the Londoner hosted all four matches, including the England-Italy match that started at 5 p.m. During that match, Gary said the bar had to turn many people away as they ran out of seats.
The Londoner team took more precaution Monday, adding more chairs and tables for a day featuring Germany, Portugal and the United States playing. Gary said the bar is quickly learning they need to be ready for this type of attendance the rest of the way.
The Londoner has also offered different promotions throughout the tournament, selling Brazilian beer when the country played on Thursday and having specials on sake during Japan’s game Saturday night. Specials like this are expected to continue for the remainder of the tournament.
The Varsity Theatre on Highland Road has also become a top venue for soccer fans, showing games on their large projector for most of the weekend. This included Monday, when fans clad in red, white and blue cheered on the United States as they took on Ghana.
The Varsity had their own specials, providing a mug for $10 that guarantees free refills of beer for spectators for the rest of the tournament. The bar also provided free buckets of popcorn throughout the match as well as beers representing the countries playing in the World Cup that day.
Thomas attended the 2006 World Cup and said the Varsity is the next best option for watching the U.S. play.
The U.S. won its match Monday evening, defeating Ghana 2-1 in a game that was mostly dominated by the opposition. U.S. forward Clint Dempsey scored in the first minute, and after Ghana responded with a goal in the 82nd minute, U.S. defender John Brooks scored the game-winner in the 86th minute.
The Varsity exploded with pandemonium after Brooks’ goal and soon broke into multiple chants of “U-S-A!” until the game ended.
As the tournament moves along, Gary hopes to maintain the level of emotion that she said she saw last weekend and Monday. She said it is what separates soccer fans from fans of other sports, and it creates an environment even non-sports fans can enjoy.
“We show LSU football games in the fall and fans get excited, but now it is different,” Gary said. “The level of excitement, the electricity in the room — it is unreal. It is unlike anything I have seen while working here before.”