gamut (2006-24)

A POLISH GUY, A BRITISH GUY AND A PRIEST WALK INTO A BAR: Jordan Pyda roots for Poland (below), while Jamison Hupp is a fan of England (above).

SOCCER BABES: Patricia Robledo and Renata Soto cheer on Ecuador.

There’s a precise geometry to the game of soccer, and yet its paradoxically fickle nature is what really draws one in. Just as a blue-and-yellow clad Ecuadorian player kicks the ball in a high soaring arc, sending it above a string of players’ heads, a stocky Polish player in red and white stops it short with a toe, glancing around keenly to decide its quick fate. If you were to trace the ball’s manic path, it might look like the scribbles of a befuddled mathematician—all chalky arches overlapping this way and that, angles akimbo, in gorgeous linear confusion.

But no one’s thinking about it in that scholarly a manner this afternoon at Soccer Taco, the Mexican sports bar and restaurant on Bearden Hill—an establishment devoted to showing soccer games on its flat-screen TVs whenever they’re on. Today is the first day of the World Cup and the bar is packed, though it’s only 3 p.m. Most customers munch on tortilla chips and partake in the drink special: double-sized frozen margaritas in regular, peach or strawberry, served in plastic NASCAR cups. All eyes are glued to the two big-screens on either side of the bar.

“Soccer is sort of like sex,” explains Jordan Pyda, sipping his sugary peach-flavored libation. “It’s like foreplay for 90 minutes. It teases and teases and then there’s that explosion when someone scores.” The analogy refers, of course, to soccer’s typically low scores, which usually don’t exceed two or three goals per game. According to Pyda, the 90 or so points scored in a basketball game are ho-hum compared to the long-awaited open shot and subsequent blast of the foot that catapults the soccer ball into the net—the silky, graceful finish.

As revealed by his red-and-white jersey, Pyda is a native of Poland, but he recently finished pre-med at Vanderbilt and was raised primarily in Knoxville. He says soccer’s a much bigger deal in Poland—and the majority of the world—than it is here. He pauses for a moment to knead his tanned temples as an Ecuador player scoops the ball from his Polish counterpart’s foothold and sends it off like a rocket. “People say there’s no tradition of soccer here, and that America’s not all that good at it, which are both true,” he says. “But I think the real reason is marketing. You can’t stop soccer except at halftime, so there are hardly any commercials, which is also the appeal to a lot of fans.”

Pyda offers the alternate theory that Americans aren’t as crazed for soccer as the rest of the world because it takes such physical fitness to endure the 45-minute-long halves. But he also thinks our relative abstinence from the world’s “football” mania says more about our cultural mindset than it does our sloth. “In a lot of ways, people in the states are isolated, and soccer’s a very international sport,” he says.

Still, soccer seems to be gaining momentum in America. “It’s even in our lexicon—‘soccer mom,’” says Pyda. “You don’t say ‘baseball mom’ or ‘basketball mom.’”

But besides kids’ soccer and the occasional adult league, the sport seems to be gaining popularity as a spectator sport. Down the bar from Pyda sits Daniel Alexander, who resembles the typical football/basketball sports fan with his Vols shirt and his hand wrapped around a big beer mug. He never played soccer in his youth, but he says his friends got him into watching it. Alexander doesn’t have a dog in this Ecuador/Poland fight; he seems to merely enjoy the spectacle. “I just like watching all the teams,” he says. “I guess I pull for the United States, but it’s kind of like the NCAA tournament—once your team is out, you can just pick a team and pull for them. I usually go for the underdog.”

Because soccer is such a worldwide sport, the World Cup brings out a national spirit that rivals, or even surpasses, the Olympics. It’s by far the largest single-sport event in the world, and because it comes only once every four years, the built-up anticipation erupts throughout the month-long tournament. “I am not even a sports fan, except every four years,” says Renata Soto, who’s been at Soccer Taco since her native country Costa Rica played at noon. “My country was opening the Cup, against the host of the game [Germany]. It’s only the third year that Costa Rica has made it, so it’s literally a national holiday down there. It’s a huge party.”

Soto perches on a barstool with her group of friends, a couple of whom are from Columbia and Venezuela. They all cheer heartily and toast with margaritas and beers when Ecuador makes its second goal. Like any SEC fan, soccer fans tend to root for regional teams second to their own. “In Latin America, you always hear about political turmoil or poverty, but soccer is one reason for these countries to be highlighted,” says Soto. “Brazil and Argentina have this chance to be world champions, and we don’t have that chance in other areas.”

There are only a few minutes left in the second half, and Poland still has zero. But the crowd in Soccer Taco begins to rumble, and any distracted eyes turn TV-ward. A Polish player appears to be wide open and in control of the ball. He gives a balance-shattering kick, and the ball glides easily into the net, narrowly escaping the goalie’s sailing block. Pyda, the only one in the bar wearing a Polish jersey, stands on the lower rail of his stool and hoots excitedly, pointing antagonizing fingers at the group of Ecuador fans across the bar. They merely sip their margaritas, confident in their one-goal lead. As it turns out, the goal is discounted because the player was offsides, but Pyda is no fair-weather fan. Win or lose, he stands by his team, exhibiting the powerful nationalism inherent to the game. “With Poland, it’s like my heart is on my sleeve,” he says.

Mario Navarro still looks a little droopy-eyed this morning. It’s 9 a.m. on Saturday and the owner of Soccer Taco has opened up two hours early for the England-Paraguay game. There is a good crowd here considering the hour, but this is no huevos rancheros-and-coffee bunch; the bar and a few tables are filled with people sipping Coronas and Bloody Marys from frosty mugs.

“I think here in Knoxville, soccer is picking up as more people from Europe, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina move here, because soccer is very important in Latin America and Europe,” he says in a thick accent. While soccer reigns supreme here, Navarro will also tune into basketball, football or any other sporting event when patrons desire. “Knoxville is crazy at football time. It’s very busy, and very good for restaurants. It’s the same in Latin America for soccer, except maybe more.”

It may have been a risk to try a soccer-based business plan in this area, but Navarro says the nine months Soccer Taco has been open have been successful. “Mexican food, the sport, margaritas and cold beer—that’s the best formula for watching soccer,” he says.

While the crowd at the Ecuador-Poland game had been more diverse, the bar is filled with mostly young white American males for the England-Paraguay game. Maybe that’s merely due to the fact that only college boys can withstand drinking beer at 9 a.m.

Jamison Hupp, a UT architecture student with an athletic, former soccer-player physique is eager to talk about World Cup and all its implications. “It’s just one of those times when everyone can drop everything and watch the world unite,” he says. “It goes beyond politics and cultural differences. It’s a common ground.”

Hupp makes an important point, one that sets soccer apart from other sports. It’s been known, in years past, to be a source of pride for poverty-stricken countries or those just coming out of civil war. Just this year, the Ivory Coast—a country stewing in religious and political conflict—all but suspended its ongoing civil war at the players’ behest, when its national team qualified for the Cup. Hupp also recalls being amazed at soccer’s unifying power when Japan and Korea—vehement political rivals—were able to come together to co-host the 2002 Cup.

One reason that soccer holds such international appeal is that it doesn’t require much in the way of equipment. Goals are nice, but all you really have to have is a ball and a ground. “If you go anywhere in the world, people are playing soccer, no matter what they have,” says Hupp. “My high school club team traveled to Europe for tournaments and kids would come up to us in the streets and just want us to play with them. They were the poorer kids, playing in bare feet. That was kind of a reality check for us.”

Hupp agrees that America’s lesser enthusiasm for soccer boils down to economics. In American pro sports, he says, we like to trade players every year—it’s all about the money. In other countries, the national team is culled right after the Cup and then plays together for those four years in preparation for the next one. Now, though, he says Americans are beginning to catch on. Before quitting soccer for the time-demanding architecture program, Hupp played in a breeding-ground program for the national team, where the country’s best teens play in a minor league of sorts. “A few World Cups from now, those kids I was playing with will be ready because they will have played together for so long,” he says. “They’ll pull 20 from that pool for the national team. That’s the first time the United States has really taken steps to prepare for the World Cup as other countries do.”

While the rest of the world celebrates soccer by closing down the streets, opening up the pubs all hours and engaging in general soccer-hysteria, the Soccer Taco scene is pretty tame. But Hupp foresees a bright future in American soccer; pockets of enthusiasm continue to grow, as the U.S. national team gets better. He recalls being at Clemson soccer camp during the 2002 World Cup, when all the games, played in Asia, occurred at 2 or 3 a.m. in the States. “We all drug our asses down, crammed into one big room and watched the game,” he says. “It was like we were at the game, with all the reactions. I think that’s how the rest of the world experiences it—that energy.”