The family was on the edge of their seats bouncing between Spanish and English — confident in their team but feeling a sliver of nervousness that Argentina might not make it. But as Lionel Messi scored the first goal that took Argentina to Sunday’s final game of the world’s largest soccer competition, the Highlandtown bar erupted into pure excitement.
“Free brunch for everyone on Sunday!” said Carlos Cruz, who owns Carlos O’Charlie’s, a bar tucked away near the corner of Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street. It was an escalation from what he had told the waitress before the game started on Tuesday: Cruz promised a free drink each time Messi scored.
I laughed at his enthusiasm, finding it refreshingly familiar. Viewership in the United States doesn’t compare to the excitement that the FIFA World Cup generates elsewhere in the world, particularly in Latin America. But Baltimore has proven to have a particular following for the sport, with nearly 40,000 fans inundating M&T Bank Stadium over the summer to watch a match between two English Premier League clubs.
But no ones watches soccer like Latinos, from the iconic, elongated “gol” each time a team scores to the passion and undying belief in their clubs. Growing up in Brazil, I watched everyone I know turn into a self-proclaimed soccer expert every four years just in time for the World Cup.
The tournament schedule this year was unprecedented. Usually held during June and July, Qatar’s desert climate prompted organizers to play in November and December.
Most of the games aired mid-morning or mid-afternoon, a time where many are working. Cruz opened his restaurant early for games. Weekdays were a bit quieter, he said. But weekends were packed. The Saturday afternoon group stage match between Mexico and Argentina was one of the best days.
“You missed out on that,” he told me.
Directly across the street from Carlos O’Charlies is a barbershop, and I noticed through the glass door that their television was showing previews for the game. I stopped by and found barbers and World Cup fans Leo Ojiedo and Daniel Francisco. The games have been on religiously in the background as the two men work. Ojiedo is originally from Venezuela, but he grew up rooting for Argentina because of its legacy in the World Cup.
But there’s another reason for it, too.
“You gotta root for Argentina because it’s the only South American team,” Ojiedo said.
They turn to me, knowing that I had been watching the games. They asked me who I was rooting for in the game between Argentina and Croatia.
“I don’t want any of the teams to win,” I say candidly, and they laugh.
Brazil has a decades-old feud against Argentina, as do Barcelona and Real Madrid fans. Or like the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, if you really don’t know soccer.
Ojiedo has faith on his team. He can already picture Messi holding the gold World Cup trophy on Sunday in what would be the nation’s third tournament win — and likely the 35-year-old legend’s last appearance. Francisco thinks his coworker is going to fool himself on Sunday. He is sure France is going to win, and had bet on Croatia moving forward. They bicker with each other.
“But in the end it doesn’t matter,” Ojiedo said. “We are all friends.”
I went back to the bar after that conversation, where two men sat in a prime location in front of a large TV, their eyes glued to the game even as they admit to each other that the match could be more exciting.
The game was a bit slower in the beginning, with Croatia controlling possession. A woman wearing a light blue Argentine hoodie and matching jeans had a look of apprehension in her eyes, as did her children — one of whom was wearing Messi’s jersey. But after Messi scored in the 34th minute and Julián Álvarez added a second goal about five minutes later, it felt clear Argentina was moving to the finals.
The question was, of course, who they were playing against.
Youssef Ennaciri immediately brightened up when I told him why I was calling.
“Oh, you want to talk about Morocco,” Ennaciri said, referring the World Cup’s surprising semifinalists. He has been watching the games in the evenings after getting home from work. He spoke of the team with candor and pride. Before moving to Baltimore many years ago, Ennaciri grew up watching Raja Club Athletic, a professional soccer team based in Casablanca.
Morocco lost to France, the defending champions who have won two World Cups. It is the furthest any African team has gone in the World Cup, with the team competing against Croatia for third place on Saturday. It would have been legendary if Morocco had a final against Argentina, Ennaciri said, especially after the African team won against Spain and Portugal.
The pride extends beyond Moroccans. Like Birhane Gebreselase, a student at Towson University who developed a love for soccer in his early teen years when he lived in Ethiopia. Originally from Eritrea, it is very special to see an African country, even if not his own, get so close to the finale.
“I’m very proud of that,” he told me.
After the first half of the Argentina-Croatia game came to an end, I went to Cruz and asked him whether he was joking about free brunch. He was not. He is opening early, too, he said, in time for the 10 a.m. kickoff.
Cruz, who is actually from El Salvador, has lived in Baltimore since 1991. Latin American immigrants come to this country and bring their love for soccer with them, he said. So he has seen Latino communities in the Baltimore area grow and with them the watch parties in the neighborhood. During the 2010 World Cup, Cruz and other businesses closed nearby Conkling Street to broadcast the game, he said, like a small festival.
“It was packed, we had a DJ,” he said. “Which is something we are gonna plan for the next World Cup.”
Yes, Cruz is already thinking about the next World Cup, which will be held in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Baltimore may have not been selected to host a game, but soccer fans in Highlandtown, and across the city I’m sure, will find their own ways to participate.