It’s 10 a.m. on Monday, and Calen James and Devin Harbour are among a group of people watching the World Cup at Flipper’s Casino. It was supposed to be a competitive game between Germany and Portugal, but the Portuguese look lackluster and the Germans like a juggernaut. The score is 3-0 by halftime.
James roots for Germany and wears the team’s jersey, so you’d expect him to be happy. But he and Harbour don’t exactly give off an air of ease. They’ve been waiting four years for this tournament. To ensure they don’t miss a single one of the 64 games, they’ve cleared their calendars as much as necessary. James is self-employed, and Harbour’s working on a book.
In addition to empty pint glasses, they have a sheaf of Cup-related documents spread across the table, including power rankings of the tournament’s 32 teams. James and Harbour take the World Cup seriously, but for them it’s only one part of a much larger system of club matches and league tables that essentially never ends. They follow every level intently, and they resent the stream of fair-weather fans who drop in every four years to cheer loudly and ignorantly for an American team that doesn’t do the beautiful game justice.
“I’d love to see them get just obliterated,” James says of the U.S. national team. “I get a kick out of it. We don’t play football in this country. It belongs to the rest of the world.”
Six hours later, a standing-room-only crowd at the Top Hat seems to disagree. The Stars and Stripes is about to take on Ghana in both teams’ first game of the tournament, and the room is full of enthusiastic U.S. fans—as well as a lone Ghana fan, Cyril Afeavo, draped in his nation’s flag.
Before kickoff, an American fan sitting front and center starts a chant—“I believe that we will win!”—and the room joins in. That fan, it turns out, is Jason Wiener, a member of both the Missoula City Council and the American Outlaws, the preeminent U.S. national team fan club. Over the next two hours, Wiener, Afeavo and hundreds of others cheer loudly and, yes, occasionally ignorantly (“How many periods are there in a soccer game?” asked one watcher) as the Americans score late for a 2-1 victory.
Hardcore fans can criticize all they want, but it feels like soccer most definitely belongs here, too.