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A group of Brazilian students from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine congregate at Slainte Irish Pub and Restaurant to cheer their nation’s team in the opening game of the 2014 World Cup. Slainte’s, in Fells Point, is one of many area hotspots for fans of countries competing in the tournament. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Catching World Cup fever

Two days before the 2014 FIFA World Cup kickoff match, a small group of patrons sat at a bar on the first floor of Slainte Irish Pub and Restaurant, chatting with the bartender. Soccer scarves declaring allegiance to local teams and English Premier League clubs lined the walls. Brazil, Ireland and U.S. flags waved over an outdoor seating area.

Kevin Tobin, an Irish bartender, poured a few pints of beer as he kept conversations going with customers at the bar. At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Fells Point bar was calm. But Tobin and other Baltimore bartenders said they expected a much busier, chaotic scene for World Cup games — soccer fans in jerseys cramming around TVs — and they’ve stocked up and put extra staff on standby.

“It’s going to be wall-to-wall craziness,” Tobin said.

“Madness,” a patron sitting at the bar added.

By 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the first day of the World Cup, Slainte was standing room only, with some fans wearing Brazil or Croatia jerseys, and others still dressed in button-down shirts and ties. A pint of Guinness sloshed in its glass as patrons passed it to the back of the room.

“Brazil, Brazil, Brazil,” a group of fans yelled when Brazil scored to tie the game in the 29th minute. A Brazil flag waved in the middle of the bar above everyone’s head, and fans broke into a chant. A woman wearing a Croatian scarf in the back of the first-floor bar shook her head and laughed.

Businesses in Baltimore and cities across the country are capitalizing on World Cup fever, serving drink specials and holding special event nights during the month-long tournament. Bars and restaurants will become a melting pot of passionate fans wearing green Mexican, red-checkered Croatian, white German and red, white and blue American jerseys.

The World Cup is special, Claddagh Pub bartender Derek Blazer said. People around the world tune in to see their teams play during the quadrennial tournament. In 2010, about 2.2 billion people globally watched at least 20 minutes of the World Cup on TV, according to FIFA, the world soccer federation.

In the U.S., the World Cup is a chance for people of various countries of origin to celebrate their identity and to share a characteristic uniquely American: a cultural mosaic created from the mixing of ethnic groups.

During the soccer season, residents and tourists pack Slainte and Canton’s Claddagh to near-capacity as early as 7 a.m., to watch a game overseas. Soccer club support groups such as the U.S. national team’s American Outlaws call the bars their homes and host watch parties for friendly matches and qualifiers. Immigrants come to watch their home teams play their biggest rivals.

“We are the home of multiple Premier League teams, German teams. We like to call our bar home for all team supporters,” said Willy Dely, the chief marketing officer for KCR Enterprises, which oversees Slainte and the Kooper’s and Woody’s restaurants. “There’s a lot of people coming to our bars, lots of games, and it’s lots of fun to meet people coming from places like Argentina.”

Vitor Pindo, a Brazilian student doing research at the Johns Hopkins University, stood at the front of Slainte’s bar Thursday night with a group of his peers, who were also from Brazil. He painted green and yellow stripes on his face and wrapped himself in a Brazil flag and joined the group in chants that overpowered the few Croatian fans.

“That’s the awesome part of the World Cup,” Pinto said. “Even though they are rivals on the field, we are friends in the club.”

This year, the time difference between Baltimore and Brazil is just an hour apart, compared to the six-hour time difference between Baltimore and South Africa. The tournament is more geared to Baltimore-area workers’ schedules, Blazer said. He said fans likely will stop by after work to catch part of a game.

Claddagh advertises itself as a soccer bar, and Slainte calls itself the place “where soccer is religion.” But other Baltimore sports bars that normally attract Orioles and Ravens fans are highlighting World Cup food and drink specials as well in anticipation of increased business.

MaGerk’s Pub & Grill in Federal Hill is serving $8 buckets of Bud Light and Budweiser during World Cup games, and the restaurant will show the U.S. matches and big games. In past years, the World Cup has been better for business than the Super Bowl and the World Series unless local teams are playing, general manager Sarah Clark said.

“People kind of fall off because the baseball season is so long,” Clark said. “But the World Cup is exciting. Like the Olympics, it only happens every four years. It definitely is exciting and beneficial to our business.”

At some downtown bars, World Cup games will be shown on TV, but Maryland sports won’t be forgotten. Pickles Pub by Camden Yards is designating some TVs for the World Cup and is showing Orioles games on the others, said Sandy Cotton, the pub’s vice president of sales. The bar will have happy hour pricing during World Cup games except when the Orioles are playing at home and will have certain beer and liquor specials throughout the tournament.

Baseball and football might be popular because of Baltimore’s home teams, but Ellicott City resident Josh Ganzermiller said soccer is a way of life in this state. He grew up playing soccer in Parkville and became a fan of the U.S. national team after the 2006 World Cup.

A few years ago, Ganzermiller walked into Slainte and met the American Outlaws Baltimore Brigade. Back then, about 20 people attended the watch parties. Now, Ganzermiller is the club’s president, and about 300 people are paying members.

“We watch every game at Slainte, whether it’s a friendly match or a qualifier game,” Ganzermiller said. “We’ll always be there with the sound on, drinking a beer and having a good time.”

This weekend, Ganzermiller and a few others from his crew will fly to Brazil to cheer on the U.S. team.

But for those who can’t make it to the Ghana-U.S. match Monday, Dely said, the city’s bars might provide the right atmosphere.

Four years ago, soccer fans packed Slainte for the U.S. vs. England group play match in the 2010 World Cup.

It was 2:45 on a June afternoon, and the bar had been at capacity since 10:30 a.m. Downstairs, U.S. fans outnumbered the English, 3-to-1, and patrons chanted and sang back and forth until the game ended in a draw. The match took place more than 8,000 miles away in Rustenburg, South Africa, but the bar felt like a stadium, Dely said.

During yesterday’s opening World Cup match pitting Brazil against Croatia, Dely glanced around the room. More than 200 people packed into the bar, and they were singing and clapping.

“We have red and yellow cards in case the fans get unruly,” Dely said, flashing a card at a patron to make her sit down. “It’s more of a game.”