It hurt, in more ways than one.


Soccer fans who cheered and groaned at the numerous highs and lows of the United States’ 2-1 loss to Belgium in the World Cup round of 16 on Tuesday had two dominant emotions when they emerged from Sneakers in Jacksonville Beach — despair over a defeat that contained so many close calls and disappointment that America’s World Cup run is over for another four years.

“I’m about to cry. I want to cry so bad about how this game went,” said Jonathan Ringo of Atlanta. “It’s terrible. I’m mad, and I’m going to be mad tomorrow. It will take me a few days to get over this.”

“The game had so many emotional moments, but that’s soccer,” said Lisa Gorman of Atlantic Beach, who said she has been a fan of the sport for more than 20 years. “It was very difficult to watch sometimes. But it was nice to see the country rally around the sport like they’ve never done before. I think we’re more a part of the world now.”

Matt Hart of St. Augustine and his friend, Chase Isaac of Jacksonville Beach, weren’t ready to let go of what the U.S. had done over the past several weeks.

“This is really tough to know it’s over, and we have to wait another four years for the World Cup,” Hart said.

“The sport is on the rise,” Isaac said. “The U.S. accomplished that.”

Sneakers became one of the many sports bars on the First Coast that became World Cup havens for soccer fans and those new to the game who quickly caught the fever.

Slideshow: USA fans have highs and ultimate low at Sneakers

Reaction: Even in defeat, U.S. soccer wins over First Coast fans

Slideshow: Fans gather for viewing parties across the U.S.

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The huge restaurant, across the street from the Atlantic Ocean, can hold 600 customers. For four U.S. World Cup games and the friendly match against Nigeria that was played at EverBank Field, owner Greg Pratt said the crowds approached the capacity that get fire marshals nervous.

“We never went over 600, but we could have,” Pratt said. “It’s been a fantastic month. We had the equivalent of having five more Super Bowl Sundays in terms of the number of customers we served, and it was fun to watch people come to the game and enjoy the atmosphere.”

Pratt said that, in a way, the U.S. World Cup run was bigger than a Super Bowl.

“You have a Super Bowl and some fans are for Seattle and some are for Denver and others don’t care which teams wins,” Pratt said. “But everyone was united, behind the U.S. There was no division of fans. Everyone was rooting for the same team in unison.”

The formula on Tuesday at Sneakers was the same as the previous three World Cup games and the friendly. Fans began arriving two hours before the game. Most were decked out in some form of red, white and blue, and some had costumes that rivaled those in the stands in Brazil.

When the national anthem played on TV, fans were on their feet and singing at the top of their lungs. The “We Believe,” and “USA, USA!” cheers were shouted multiple times.

“This has been a tremendous experience every time,” said Greg Van Gaasbeek of Jacksonville Beach, who said he was a lifelong professional team sports fan with little use for soccer until his sister, Cristina, convinced him to come to Sneakers to watch the World Cup games.

“I was the same as any American sports fan, all about scoring points or runs,” Van Gaasbeek said. “But I’ve learned to appreciate the passing, the saves, watching the plays unfold, knowing how difficult it is to get a corner kick. I think anyone giving the sport the same chance will learn that.”

Pratt and other businessmen in the sports and restaurant industry have realized that tapping into soccer fever makes sense.

He has made sure that every World Cup game has been on his big screens and will continue throughout the rest of the event. When a country such as Mexico or Colombia was playing, Pratt would dial up the Spanish-language telecast.

He said there have been significant numbers of fans rooting for Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Italy and Greece who have come to Sneakers to watch the games.

Pratt has a cross-promotion deal with Soccer Stop and hired a plane to fly a banner over EverBank during the U.S.-Nigeria game.

“The interest is only going to increase, and it won’t stop when the World Cup ends,” he said. “I’m very anxious to see how much this affects the interest in [Jacksonville’s pro soccer team] the Armada. Soccer has finally turned the corner.”

And that’s something U.S. fans may take consolation in when the hurt wears away.


Garry Smits: (904) 359-4362