The World Cup Watch Party brings avid football fans to DC Park

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Britt Robinson could have stayed at home or gone to a bar to watch the United States play Wales in the opening game of the World Cup on Monday afternoon. But what fun would that be? Instead, the 27-year-old convention staffer opted to join the roughly 1,000 other fans at Dupont Circle for Soccer in the Circle, an open-air watch party for the US men’s first World Cup game since 2014.

“It’s not every day that you get out there with other people and cheer for your country,” said Robinson. “It’s pretty special.”

That sentiment was shared by many others, who managed to free up their schedules to watch the game on two big screens at the park in the afternoon, undeterred by the below-average temperatures, which hovered in the mid to high 40s.

Hesham Ibrahim, 45, who moved to the United States from Egypt nine years ago, brought his sons and nephews to the circle. Wrapped in an American flag, the Fairfax resident said he had waited all year for this day to cheer on his team.

“The United States has given so much to me and my family,” Ibrahim said his son Youssef Ibrahim interpreted. “It’s the smallest thing we can do to show our gratitude.”

Where to watch the World Cup in DC

The event was hosted by the Welsh Government so the Welsh team also had fans around. Despite being heavily outnumbered, they enthusiastically sang along to their national anthem and never stopped cheering.

Aubryn Walters, an American studying in Wales came to watch the game in the Welsh colors. Walters would be cheering on the Reds and Greens, she said, but she was also hoping to meet other people from Wales and work on their language skills.

“I’m practicing my Welsh on Duolingo and it would be nicer to practice in person,” she said.

Before kick-off, the atmosphere was relaxed and cheerful. dance music played. Beer was secretly consumed — the National Park Service park is an alcohol-free zone — and free popcorn and shortbread cookies were provided.

After kick-off it was all business.

Football is an attention-grabbing sport and this was a devoted crowd. There were long periods of attentive and intense silence punctuated by applause or gasps of anticipation as the US team dominated the first half. “USA” chants began and then died down. Yellow cards warning American players were derided. A chorus of groans rose as another attack fizzled out.

But then, magic. The team’s star player, Christian Pulisic, threaded a deft pass onto winger Timothy Weah, who scored in style, and the Dupont crowd erupted in cheers, hugs and high-fives. A man wearing an American flag cape fell to his knees and raised his fists skyward. They missed that in 2018 when the US team failed to qualify for the tournament.

At half-time, the Welsh fans didn’t have high hopes.

“It is very stressful. I’m not very optimistic,” said Seth Thomas, 23, who traveled with his sister Rachel Thomas, 29, to cheer on Wales. The siblings grew up in Columbia, Md., but they represented their father there, who is Welsh.

His sister checked her phone.

“When my boss asks, I monitor emails,” she said.

This year marks the first time the World Cup will be held in a Middle Eastern country. Qatar’s first full day of football was not without controversy. The captains of seven European teams, including Wales, had planned to wear armbands in support of LGBTQ rights. But they called off the protest when FIFA, football’s international governing body, warned players wearing the armbands would receive yellow cards. That would severely hamper the team as the player would be kicked out for a second yellow card in the game.

FIFA’s last-minute decision to fine players for wearing the armband was seen as trying not to offend the host country, where same-sex sexual activity between men is illegal and can carry seven years in prison. Teams gave up wearing the armband, but not without voicing frustration.

Qatar also faced protests and condemnations for treating migrant workers who came to the country to build the stadiums and hotels in preparation for the event.

However, at the Dupont Circle Viewing Party, the focus was entirely on football and the game being played. The United States only had to build on their first-half attack and their first World Cup win in eight years would be theirs.

But as dominant as the US team was in the first half, they acted sloppily and uncertainly in the second half. The pressure from Wales built up, the US crowd groaned at every mistake by the Americans. After escaping several sticky situations, the defense was eventually overwhelmed and Wales star Gareth Bale was fouled and awarded a penalty. He didn’t miss.

After 10 minutes of extra time, the game ended as it had started: a draw. A sobering result for Dupont’s US fans, who were delighted with the side’s first-half performance and were expecting a sequel. There was no rejoicing – except among the Welsh. The park quickly emptied.

“It wasn’t the result we had hoped for, but it was a good time,” said Elena Bachrach, 32, shortly after the end of the game. She was walking home from a doctor’s appointment when she decided to join the crowd in circles. Now she wants another chance.

“I was surprised to see so many people out here,” she said. “I hope they do it again.”

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