Despite the fact that for many Americans football means, well, football, and that for the first time in more than 30 years, the U.S. men’s national team did not qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup – there is ample local enthusiasm for the international football/soccer tournament which comes around every four years.
Houston is an international city, and there are plenty of avid fans who have roots in the finalist countries. Out of 32 teams, there were four in the quarterfinals – Belgium, France, England, and Croatia. Belgium lost to France on Tuesday and England and Croatia played Wednesday. By press time, the finalists will be known, but to the fans, there is still much to celebrate.
Garden Oaks’ Candice Croker was born and raised in Gent, Belgium but moved to Texas when she was in the fifth grade. Her parents were both born and raised in Belgium.
“All of my children also have Belgian passports now so they can live and work anywhere in the EU when they get older, which I love being able to offer as an opportunity for them,” said Croker.
As her entire extended family is still in Belgium, excitement was high about their performance.
“Belgium is always thought of as the ‘ugly duckling’ of Europe and gets teased as much as we tease our beloved Aggies here,” said Croker. “We love sharing with our friends that Belgium has a lot to offer beyond waffles, Brussels sprouts, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Smurfs and fries (yes, they’re Belgian) – I was texting with my Brugge-based cousin during the game against Brazil and it was such a fun way to reconnect with him.”
Belgium’s rival in the quarterfinals – France – last won the World Cup in 1998. Jules Reigneaud, who hails from Moulins in the Auvergne region of France spent this past year in Houston as a foreign exchange student at Waltrip High School, living with a family in Garden Oaks.
He’s now visiting New York City with his French family and says that they were going to seek out a French pub to watch the game.
“I’m a big fan and my family is so hyped up,” said Reigneaud. “It’s a rivalry [with Belgium] because we both speak French.”
Oak Forest resident Julie Wilson is not at all conflicted in her World Cup loyalties. In 2000, she moved to Houston from the UK during Thanksgiving weekend.
“Other than a few British friends, I didn’t know anybody in Houston,” said Wilson. “I found the transition much more difficult than I’d anticipated, and nearly left after a very rocky first six months.”
Almost 20 years later, the mother and wife to an American is still here. Wilson still tries to get back to England though every 18 months.
“I am so excited the English football team is doing well in the World Cup,” she said.
“England won it once in 1966 – and it’s still referred to frequently in England. My family is fired up, even my non-sports-fans cousins. And a wave of euphoria is sweeping the country. It’s really brought people together. My brother and his wife run a country village pub, and England’s run has been good for business.”
On the other side of the proverbial field is Heights resident Dr. Anita Ticak, an eye doctor who teaches optometry at the University of Houston.
Ticak was raised in Ohio but spends summers in Croatia. Her parents are there now. “We are from a village in Croatia called Ljubac close to Zadar,” said Ticak. “I love Croatian soccer and follow our guys from international play to club teams. I’m so proud of what they’ve done. I also have a cousin related to one of the players and the goalie – who has made insane penalty kick saves – is also from Zadar.”
Ticak said that her parents have told her that everyone is watching the games together at a local café.
“Between Facebook, Instagram and Twitter I’m pretty busy keeping up with everyone,” she said. “The way our country is playing definitely unites us and makes us all so proud.”
Still proud of top eight
There are other locals who continue to celebrate their teams, even though they have exited the tournament.
Oak Forest’s Renata Weiss moved to Houston from Brazil in 2006 after she married a Houston native. Every year and a half she takes her three kids back to visit family.
“The Brazilian National Team is reflection of the Brazilian identity, culture, and patriotism,” she said. “I grew up watching the national team with my family. Brazil won the World Cup twice since I was born.”
Games are fun to watch but the losses come hard.
“I have never cried because of any game in my entire life, including my own college volleyball games,” said Weiss. “Except in the 2014 World Cup when Brazil lost to Germany 7 to 1. I was devastated like never before because of a sports game.”
Candlelight Place’s Elena Valova grew up in Tyumen, Siberia, but an oil and gas job brought her to Houston six years ago.
“Moscow is my family’s hub now, my parents work and live in Kazakhstan – it’s a real country,” Valova said. “Football and hockey are our big team sports, and even though I don’t watch soccer during the regular season, my family and I always root for our guys in the World Cup.”
For the first time in 32 years Russia advanced from the group level.
“My family and I watched the game with our Russian/American friends at the Wakefield Crowbar,” Valova said. “We sat outside, [and] I bet it was entertaining for the volleyball players to watch a woman with a four month old baby shout in Russian after every penalty shot.”
Valova watched the game against Croatia with about 70 other Russians at a hall normally reserved for weddings.
“The World Cup this year was the best in my lifetime so far,” said Valova. “The Russian team is one of the eight best teams this year and it makes me very proud.”
The final match will be played on July 15 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. One place where you can be sure to catch the match close to home is King’s Bierhaus off of T.C. Jester.
President Philipp Sitter said that as they are a German Bierhaus, soccer is very dear to their culture.
“Germany didn’t do very well this year, but soccer [and the] World Cup is much larger than a single country,” he said.