Way back in October, the U.S. men's national soccer team, by virtue of a stunning 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, was eliminated from contention for World Cup 2018 in Russia. That was a major bummer, but American soccer fans still were expected to watch the World Cup and appreciate the sport's superstars such as Messi, Ronaldo or Neymar leading their teams to the title. Then Argentina, Portugal and Brazil were knocked out and joined defending champion Germany on the sidelines. Many U.S. fans rooting for our southern neighbor lost interest after Mexico was eliminated.
Television viewership of World Cup play in the U.S. was down 42 percent in the early stages, with more Americans watching golf coverage than the world's most-popular sport. But there is a patch of suburbia where World Cup excitement is accelerating and loyalties are about to collide. Fermilab, our government's particle physics and accelerator laboratory in Batavia, is home to 1,750 employees, many of them scientists and engineers from the 50 countries that collaborate with Fermilab.
2018 World Cup television schedule• France vs. Belgium, 1 p.m. Tuesday
• Croatia vs. England, 1 p.m. Wednesday
• Losers of those semifinal games play for third place at 9 a.m. Saturday
• Winners of those semifinal games play at 10 a.m. Sunday for the World Cup title
• All games are broadcast on Fox Sports
"In most countries in Europe it's impossible not to follow the World Cup," says Michel Sorel, a visiting Spanish physicist who grew up in Italy and roots for Belgium because his father was from neighboring Luxembourg. "I watch it every four years."
Physics is not a 9-to-5 job, so Sorel says he'll be watching at 1 p.m. today when Belgium takes on France in a battle of nations best known to non-soccer fans in the U.S. as providers of excellent dessert options. Black holes, particle accelerators and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment will be around for a long time, but the World Cup ends Sunday.
"It is the peak of conversation," says Vincent Roger, a native of France and a mechanical engineer who helps design the cryomodule part of a particle accelerator used in the Proton Improvement Plan-II. "If you don't watch the game, you are missing something."
Roger remembers camping with his parents in 1998 when they set up folding chairs in front of a TV to watch France win the World Cup for the only time in that nation's history.
The memories aren't as rewarding for physicist Mike Wallbank, who grew up near Liverpool and has seen his English team, which last won the Cup 52 years ago, turn in nothing but disappointing World Cup performances during his lifetime. But now, reaching the final four for the first time since 1990, England can make it into the championship game for the first time since 1966 with a win Wednesday against Croatia.
"Physics and football (soccer) are the two things I enjoy most. But I've watched England too many years to have any confidence," Wallbank says, sounding like every pre-2016 Chicago Cubs fan. In fact, he got up before dawn in England to watch the Cubs win the 2016 World Series and appreciated those scenes of long-suffering Cubs fans relishing the moment. Wallbank admits he'd like to be back in Liverpool as England tries to end its World Cup drought.
"I said if England gets to the World Cup Finals, we'd fly back," Wallbank jokingly suggested to the 20 or so British scientists working at Fermilab when World Cup play began a month ago.
The nearly 20 million people who watched Saturday's BBC coverage of England's 2-0 win over Sweden were in a festive mood.
"It would be incredible to be in England for that," Wallbank says.
The tightknit group of physicists and engineers at Fermilab participates in soccer games on the grounds twice a week and appreciates the loyalties of peers from countries knocked out of the World Cup.
"The Brazilians were really so depressed, you just wanted to cheer them up," Sorel says.
"Sport is sport," Roger says, noting that he's been a gracious winner throughout the World Cup.
"It never gets personal," Wallbank says, pausing a moment before conceding, "unless we play France in the finals."