Soccer fans FIFA World Cup
It’s standing–room only on a Tuesday afternoon at Captain Jack’s Bar. Photo credit: James Manning NNS

Hundreds of soccer devotees diverge to downtown Lincoln venues to watch the early and middle stages of the FIFA World Cup.

It is December and bars are packed as early as 9 a.m.  What in the world is going on? It becomes obvious as soon as you step inside. It’s the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Rain, sleet, hail and snow. Moderate temperatures or frigid cold. Still, the devotees of the world’s largest sporting event are out in droves on weekdays and weekends.

At Jake’s Cigars & Spirits in Lincoln, the casual viewer and hardcore fans mingle. Banter and trash talk, mostly in jest, is commonplace. The hardcore fans know the rosters of any given team on the screen; the less enthusiastic ask simple questions. Despite the sport’s growing popularity in the United States, soccer is still a foreign language to many.

“Is the forearm a handball?” Someone in the crowd asks. “Anything below the elbow,” comes the reply.

“I’ve noticed soccer fans seem more communal than, say, a football crowd,” viewer Jake Masek of Lincolnsaid.

Masek, a self-admitted casual observer, was blown away by the bar crowd’s devotion and non-stop scrutiny during the U.S. Men’s team improbable draw against England on Black Friday. A match that favored England by 1.5 goals.

“One T.V. was playing Michigan vs. Ohio State, and 99% of the bar didn’t give a damn,” the 35 year-old said. Such is the drawing power of an event that only occurs every four years, even in a football addicted state in a football addicted country.

“For me, it’s about unity and competition,” said Jeff Pepin. Pepin, a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S.A. The Lincoln resident has noticed a strong uptick in American passion for the sport.

“It helps that the U.S. has a young, competent team,” Pepin said. The U.S. team is the second youngest in the tournament behind Ghana. According to Statista, the average age is just over 25. It is also the teams first entry since 2014 after the 2018 squad failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup held in Russia.

Jakes crowd 4 300x225 - World Cup fever takes over downtown Lincoln
The aftermath of a United State’s goal. Photo: James Manning NNS

“FIFA and broadcasters really want to break further into the U.S. market,” said Thomas Horky, a long-time German sportswriter and media professor. “There are more soccer fans in the United States than there are people in some countries competing.” 

“Every day there is soccer on the television in America. That was not the case 10-15 years ago,” Horky said.

America, a sleeping giant in the world’s most popular game? Horky seems to think so.

A few blocks away at Captain Jack’s Bar, a different vibe takes place. It’s a cold Tuesday. Early afternoon. The U.S. team must beat Iran to advance out of the earliest stage of the World Cup. If Jake’s Cigars & Spirits was bustling, Captain Jack’s was packed. The otherwise unassuming bar has long been the premiere viewing venue for all things soccer in Lincoln.

Here, every emotion is felt. Minor contact? “That should have been a red card!” Rings out from the crowd. The opponent receives a yellow card? Also should have been a red card. Chants and songs, mostly heard in more fanatical, overseas soccer venues, spring up constantly. 

In the 38th minute, the United States scored a goal to make it 1-0, a crucial result that would remain and ensure the team continues its FIFA World Cup campaign. 

“U.S.A, U.S.A, U.S.A.,” shouts sprang out from just about everyone in attendance.

The post-victory euphoria wouldn’t last forever. The U.S. had an unfavorable matchup next against the perennially strong Netherlands. The Americans would lose that match 3-1, confirming their exit from the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

A winter FIFA World Cup is without precedent. A certain reality when hosting the event in the Middle East. Next up in Summer 2026? North America. And many fans and viewers are already counting down the days. 

“I think the whole soccer mom culture that has been built up over the years that’s been denied prior is gonna show out.” Said Stephanie Eads, the mother of a soccer-playing daughter. “We’re gonna have so many fans, and people are going to see the support we have for the first time.”