Fans Have Reason to Cheer in Anaheim

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Angels fell and the Rams fled, but soccer crashed the gates at Anaheim Stadium Wednesday night and made everyone forget.

About 27,000 people cheered and clapped with such spirit, and players dived and kicked with such heart, that it might well have been the World Series--or the World Cup.

In fact, it was opening night of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, an 11-day, three-city spectacle of soccer bringing together nine national teams from Brazil and Central and North America. The teams of CONCACAF, acronym of the Confederacion Norte-Centroamericana y del Caribe de Futbol, are converging on Southern California for an off-year tuneup for the Olympics and World Cup, beginning with two matches Wednesday.

If opening night was any indication, the tournament was yielding nothing to its more famous big brothers.

"Oh my God, I'm so happy--wooooooo!!!," crooned Santos Medina of Van Nuys as the Honduran national team took the field below to play Canada. A Honduran native, Medina began to wave his huge blue-and-white Honduran flag. "Everywhere in Honduras they are watching this."

The game that unfolded for Medina was worth the wait: A dramatic shootout between the Honduran and Canadian teams that had the crowd on its feet for most of the night. Honduran flags streamed throughout the stadium, in the seats behind the goals and the upper decks, and even a couple of tiny Canadian flags poked through. Canada wound up beating Honduras, 3-1.

Anaheim Stadium, which had not hosted a soccer game since 1971, has rarely seen such a crazy mix. The second match brought hundreds of fans loyal to El Salvador, which played Trinidad and Tobago. The announcements came in English and Spanish. Cameras beamed pictures to the Caribbean islands, and reporters scribbled notes in Portuguese.

Herbert Palacios, a Costa Rican native, sat in his seat and waved an American flag.

"I like some of the others, but it's the Americans I want to win," said Palacios, who was sporting a San Francisco 49ers cap. "Soccer is finally starting to grow here, and America could be the best in the world."

Fans loyal to El Salvador and Honduras dominated the stadium, and those like Robert Neubhard showed why.

Neubhard, a Honduran native who lives in Pasadena, arrived four hours before the match, part of a six-car convoy of 35 fans.

They partied the afternoon away, listening to music on a boombox, waving flags and wearing Honduran headbands. They greeted the team when it arrived.

"Nothing else we would drive for," Neubhard said. "Basketball, football, baseball--we don't care--unless it's soccer and Honduras is playing."

William Monge of Anaheim came to see the team from his native El Salvador. But it was the team from Trinidad and Tobago he saw first--when they walked into the sporting goods store where he works, Pla Sports Soccer Equipment in Garden Grove.

"They were very friendly, said Monge, who played on Fullerton College's 1993-94 Orange Conference championship team. "I told them I was from El Salvador. They said, 'We'll win.' I said, 'We'll see.' "

Monge, who went with 11 friends, said it was natural to root for the team from one's birthplace. "That's just the way it is," he said. "You follow your own nation."

Oscar Escalante, 26, of Anaheim, stood outside the stadium before the match and began posing for pictures with family and friends. All were holding a large Salvadoran flag. Escalante tried to explain the appeal of futbol in Latin America.

"There is really nothing like it," Escalante said. "Except for the religious holidays, futbol gives you the most spiritual uplift."

Soccer is just as big in the Caribbean, according to a Trinidadian reporter filming the match.

"Very big, very big," said Tony Salandy from a television station in Trinidad. "We'll be sending back footage all night."

The tournament continues with matches in Anaheim, San Diego and Los Angeles. The championship match is set for Jan. 21 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

In the first match Wednesday, the partisan crowd got grim when Canada jumped out to an early lead over Honduras. While thousands cheered Honduras' every move, a tiny contingent of Canadian fans hunkered down in the front row rooting for their team.

"This isn't so bad," said Victor West, a Canadian native who lives in Los Angeles. "We like a good challenge."

* TALLY OF GOALS: Even without several regulars, Canada trounces Honduras. C1

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