Pittsburgh pub prays at altar of soccer

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It has no steeples or stained-glass windows.

But for regulars, Piper’s Pub on East Carson Street is a holy place: It’s a church of soccer.

Or a “church of football,” in the parlance of the group of British expatriates gathered around a high-top table, beers in hand and eyes trained on the screen, where teams from Brazil and Croatia could be seen squaring off in the first match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which began Thursday in Brazil.

Tony Jamie, 62, is the group’s patriarch. Born in London, Mr. Jamie came to Pittsburgh in 1967 when his father, a steelworker, got a job at Crucible Steel. Mr. Jamie went to Point Park University on a scholarship for soccer and has been playing in local leagues, mainly in Pittsburgh, ever since.

His first time at the pub, which styles itself as “a taste of the British Isles,” was on Nov. 17, 2001 -- the day Manchester bested Leicester City 2-0, he recalled. Almost ever since, he has been returning weekly to watch Premier League games and, once every four years, the World Cup. He keeps good track of this history, proudly opening a three-ring binder to display handwritten lists: Each cup winner since 1930, how many times each country has made the final four, how many times each country has qualified.

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Crowded around the table, friends made over the years at the pub egged Mr. Jamie on. “He’s the godfather of all of this,” remarked Richard Bartley, who came to Pittsburgh from Manchester in 1999. Fan culture has spawned local competition, as Mr. Bartley has founded a series of Pittsburgh soccer leagues over the years.

The pub caters intentionally to soccer fanatics, said manager Hart Johnson, 37. It opens at 7 a.m. on weekends to broadcast regular season games. On Thursday afternoon, the bar did a brisk business; draft beer and fried food satisfied an eager crowd. Sheela Alderman, a server, said it’s one of the busiest days of the year. But it’s also her favorite.

“All the people here, they’re regulars,” said Ms. Alderman, 27. “I love these guys.”

It was an eclectic group packed around the pub’s five screens; fans represented at least four continents. Despite diverse origins, most bet on Brazil’s victory. Indeed, the host country clinched the opener 3-1.

At the center of the bar, Ana Canavezi and two friends shouted and clapped for Brazil, which is Ms. Canavezi’s home country. Clothed entirely in green, she alluded to political unrest back home, saying she would have boycotted the game had she been in Brazil, as a way to protest what she described as her government’s corruption and misplaced priorities. The government’s spending on facilities for the World Cup has been a flashpoint of protests in Brazil since last year.

Sitting next to Ms. Canavezi, 28, was Max Schneider, who was sporting a Croatia jersey in support of his favorite player, Nikica Jelavić.

“Brazil is like the Yankees of the World Cup,” Mr. Schneider said, proud to cheer on the underdog.

Most pub-goers, though, had little stake in the opening game, waiting for their teams to join the fray. Thursday they were glad simply to enjoy an event viewed around the world -- in bars, restaurants and living rooms alike.

“This is five times as big as the Super Bowl,” said James Crossley, standing beside fellow British fans. “If England won, people would be partying in the streets for two weeks.”

But only one thing is less likely than England winning, Mr. Crossley added: “American winning.”

Isaac Stanley-Becker: istanley-becker@post-gazette.com, 412-263-3775 or on Twitter @isb_isaac.

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