It's Earth's biggest party, played to a world beat. Minus a few thousand hooligans, give or take, the World Cup soccer marathon has a lot to teach statesiders on how to cheer with a certain international flair.

There's the sexy samba Argentinian players do to celebrate a goal (even if the tango would be more appropriate).

There are the Jamaican fans driving a truckload of dancing women and reggae musicians around France for the sheer joy of being part of the scene.

There are those no-holds-barred Brazilian women who scream while their men simply clench their jaws and fists whenever a foe threatens to score.

And get a load of those Dutchmen who root for their team dressed as winsome (Not!) milkmaids.

Americans may be sports-obsessed, but for the most part they don't get the World Cup. Too bad. It's the ultimate international sporting event for reasons ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime: The hunk factor.

The great hair.

The bad hair.

The painted faces.

The politics.

The humor.

The music.

The drama.

And that official World Cup Gesture of Anguish: hands to head, body tilted back in the agony of defeat.

When the month of rivalry and revelry is over, organizers estimate that 37 billion viewers will have tuned in for the World Cup's 64 games. Today, as the Championship Round begins, expect soccer passion to fly off the chart. For evidence, look no farther than Baltimore, where hot pockets of soccer zeal have been erupting during the first round. From pizza joints to social clubs to a Johns Hopkins University pub that has become soccer central for international graduate students, soccer mania has prevailed here for two weeks.

It's the post-lunch hour lull at Fortunatos Brothers Pizza on York Road. Outside, it's a somnolent Wednesday afternoon. Inside, pizza production has come to a halt for the Italy vs. Cameroon match. The shop's ablaze with Italian red, green, yellow streamers and balloons. A soccer pinata hangs festively from the ceiling, and even the pizza boxes are decorated with a soccer theme.

Behind the counter, the older di Meo boys lean in taut suspense over a spread of pizzas, garlic and tomato bread, and occasionally fill stray orders. Siblings, too young yet to work, sit at tables. The littlest kids are bedecked with braided streamers.

All eyes are tilted toward the large screen, placed for the occasion on top of the soda case. Maria (Mom), Mario, Stefano, Daniela, Rosario, Gaetano, Tony, Maria's brother Michael Barone, his wife Angela, and Jack Berrenger, the only employee there who isn't family. Antonio, the di Meo patriarch, is busy in the back -- someone has to keep the business going -- but even he appears from time to time to watch the game.

Cheers and barbs fly in Italian, and laughs explode when the Italian goalie strong-arms an opponent with a certain inimitable Italian panache.

Soon, an old man arrives at the restaurant. He wears a straw fedora and those huge, protective sunglasses spotted frequently senior citizens. Ceremoniously, he removes something from a brown paper bag. It's a framed photograph of Italian soccer star Roberto Bagio. It's placed gently on the counter, an object of great reverence, now a shrine. The man sits down to watch and chat in his native tongue. He comes in frequently, but the di Meos don't know his name.

In a little while, the man departs, but leaves the photo on the counter.

# His talisman works;

Italy wins.

Saturday afternoon: At first there are 30, then there are seven. With Korea down 2-0 against the Netherlands, customers gathered at Nam Kang Restaurant can't stomach the possibility of another loss, so most leave. The handful who don't are gloomily braced for loss, cheering when Korea's goalie blocks a few goals, groaning when the Netherlands scores.

"We don't have to win, but just one goal," pleads Chong Nim Shin, owner of the restaurant on Maryland Avenue. She faces a television near the sushi bar. "I wish we'd make just one goal."

"A second goal would follow a first," adds a customer, also in Korean.

So they watch, each with determination, each with their own theory as to what is wrong with the plays. The Netherlands scores again. Korea is now down 3-0.

"At this rate, we'd be lucky to lose 5-0," a customer says.

A fourth goal follows. The wistful sighs blend into laughs of disbelief. Someone else walks out the door. A fifth goal and the game is over.

Unfortunately, the prediction has become reality. But the customer who made it has already left.

Sunday, 8: 30 a.m. at E Level Pub on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus. Manager Pat Bearry has turned the place over to a flock of German graduate students, hungry to watch their team play in appropriate fashion.

The dad of two had to get up at 7 a.m. to be here, on Father's Day, no less. But if he didn't, the students would have no place to go.

"Usually we turn the TVs on and watch everything from 'Jerry Springer' to 'The Simpsons,' " Bearry says. But lately, it's strictly World Cup, and the pub has been mobbed. Since the tournament started, E Level has averaged some 200 customers a day during the week and has run out of food more than once. "We get everyone from Germans to Nigerians," Bearry says. "You should see the people going crazy, from crying to hugging."

This morning, Ralf Bachmayer, a robotics student, wields a pair of tongs with the help of Bernard Hayek, a civil environmental engineering student, and Richard Altendorfer, a physics student. They are serving up a "Bavarian breakfast": sausage and beer. That's Weibwurst (veal sausage) and Marzen beer, to be exact.

Sweet mustard and soft pretzels are on the menu, too. For the faint of heart, coffee and donuts are available. And orange juice from a squirt gun.

This crew has yet to wake up. They're moribund, still damp from early showers, as they watch Germany play Yugoslavia on a huge screen. They rest their elbows on pool tables. But coffee gives way to beer, and as Germany throws its weight around, the crowd wakes up. An excited buzz fills the pub. A header misses the goal, prompting groans and that international gesture of despair.

Then a splendid header into the goal prompts manly roars, bar pounding, high fives. The emotional arc in the bar traces that in the faraway stadium.

The game ends in a tie, but that's good enough for the German players, who will advance to the second round -- and for the German fans, who feast on a second round of Weibwurst and dark beer.

Three hours later on Sunday, members of the JA Raiders, a local soccer team, have gathered at Studio 4229, a Caribbean social club in Waverly. With friends, they're watching their beloved Reggae Boyz from Jamaica play Argentina. Dressed in Reggae Boyz shirts and caps, they lean intently toward a screen set on a small stage, beneath a glittery mirror ball.

Club owner Rick Nugent serves his friends soda and Jamaican Red Stripe beer.

Among them is Michael Phillips, a chemist who also publishes Hot Calaloo, a Caribbean newsletter that circulates in Baltimore and elsewhere. In celebration of Jamaica's first World Cup appearance, Phillips' latest edition included his own ode to the Reggae Boyz, which goes in part:

So dance reggae boys dance Let others drink French wine Win or lose We're proud of you For we know, Every one of you will shine.

But Jamaica isn't shining, and Devon Harrison is irritated.

"I've seen them play much better ball," he grumbles. Today, "I see fear, once they get past the half line. They don't want to mess up so they give it away. They should go for the goal like a bloodhound and if you mess up, it's OK."

Jamaica loses, 5-zip. The Reggae Boyz have lost the scent.

Back at Hopkins' E-Level, fans watch Spain trounce Bulgaria. But Paraguay's unexpected win prevents Spain from qualifying for the second round.

A glum, impotent aura grips the pub. Fans manage a laugh as the camera returns again and again to a Spaniard painted in national colors, who sobs unabashedly as his team wins the battle, but loses the war.

"Spain is in control of Bulgaria, but not its fate," an announcer intones.

Nick Marsh-Armstrong, a 32-year-old post-doctoral student at the Carnegie Institute, grimaces. When Paraguay's third goal is announced, he buries his head, in the international World Cup Gesture of Anguish.

A moment later, when it's all over, he finds a bright side. "It's nice to see Spain playing good soccer. That's gratifying in itself," he says.

And there's another plus to this twist of Spanish fate: "I'm happy they're out of it," Marsh-Armstrong says. "Now I can enjoy the rest of this. I won't be as anxious."

Pub Date: 6/27/98

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