AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — The bald man came dressed head-to-toe in full American spirit. A red, white and blue bandana, stars and stripes mismatched socks, shorts that might have been swimming trunks suited for a summer barbeque.
Philip Labas wore an outfit bursting with pride for the United States men's soccer team Saturday as he attended his 18th match of his first trip to the World Cup. He was part of the American Outlaws, the team's official fan group, and they'd gathered under the Aspire Tower to march as a group to their seats inside Khalifa International Stadium.
It was Labas’ role to fire up the crowd. He sang and danced with the friends he’s collected over his years supporting U.S. soccer, and as the men's team advanced to the round of 16, Labas became their loudest cheerleader.
The currently unemployed Chicago resident was supposed to be searching for cybersecurity work during his downtime in Doha, but he's been having far too much fun chanting “USA!” and singing “When the Yanks Come Marching In” for all the American fans. Even before the Netherlands' 3-1 victory ended the team's run at the World Cup, Labas had already extended his accommodations into next week because he was certain the United States would beat the Dutch.
The American audience tuned into the U.S.'s first three matches in record numbers to watch the second-youngest team at the World Cup, a group that for two weeks helped unite a fractured nation.
“Their spirit, their grit, their intensity, the camaraderie they show for each other, and in the grand scheme of it, they are super friendly guys," Labas said. "It's a single focus, single purpose, they are all pulling for each other and I think every single one of them would run through a wall for each other.
“And that's America, right?” Labas posited. “Different backgrounds, different people all come together for a single purpose, and that's one of the things that bonds this team. I mean, I'm with two guys from different parts of Florida, one guy from Minneapolis, I'm from Chicago, and we're rooming together in Qatar. We've spent the last 2 1/2 weeks together just loving life and loving this team.”
The crowd that marched with Labas into the stadium included off-duty U.S. servicemen from nearby Al Udeid Air Force Base, a young couple from Texas, two friends from Redwood City, California, and a woman from Uganda who now lives in Qatar and doesn't even like soccer but became enamored by the American team.
“I got the tickets to come to the match and I am so happy,” said Mastula Kyongo, who wore a bright red head tie, an official Team USA shirt and a scarf decorated with the American flag draped over her shoulders. “They have a young, beautiful team and I just love everything about them.”
The United States failed to qualify for the World Cup four years ago, so much of its 26-man squad had never before experienced such American pride. They received messages from their former hometowns, learned of pauses on classwork so students could watch their matches, and saw social media posts from watch parties around the United States.
“The support has been amazing. The amount of people that have reached out to me leading up to this event, to these games," United States captain Tyler Adams said after the loss to the Netherlands. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our American fans, the American fans that traveled all this way, the American fans back home. I hope we gave them something to be excited about moving forward.”
Heather Holland and Alejandro Szenkier made the trip to Doha from Dallas to fulfill Szenkier's lifelong dream of attending a World Cup. He's originally from Uruguay and the compactness of this World Cup allowed them to make the trip, see two matches a day, and cheer for the USA.
Szenkier wore an American flag as a traditional Gulf Arab headdress and insisted that with winger Christian Pulisic, the United States is developing into a team that will contend on the world soccer stage.
“He's probably the best U.S. player in history,” Szenkier said. “This is going to be a very good team four years from now and help develop a generation for American soccer.”
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Jenna Fryer, The Associated Press