- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

Even in a melting pot of a city like Washington, when it comes to sports, soccer isn’t king or anywhere close. But that may not be the case Saturday afternoon, when soccer’s version of the Super Bowl, the UEFA Champions League final, splashes onto television screens across the District.

The matchup could hardly be more tantalizing and talked about. The world’s two most storied — and supported — clubs, England’s Manchester United, coming off a record-breaking 19th English title, and Spain’s politically powerful Barcelona, winners of three consecutive domestic titles, will battle it out for the title of the best team, in the best region for the globe’s most spirited sport.

And to make the tie even tastier for Washingtonians, a rematch of this epic encounter will happen in the city’s backyard. Both teams are embarking on summer tours of the U.S. that will include a July 30 exhibition at an already sold-out FedEx Field.

So in a city with a large foreign population, not to mention a rising soccer culture, scores of local fans are expected to pour into local pubs for the game.

“It’s going to be a capacity crowd from the time we open, so [the spike in sales] goes up by 100 percent” said Paul Lusty, owner of Lucky Bar D.C. in Northwest. “It’s significant; it’s going to be a big day.”

Just how big, though?

“I’m expecting to have to turn people away,” said Vince Terlep, owner of the Elephant and Castle Pub and Restaurant at 19th and I streets. “It’s a good problem to have.”

A good problem that partially stems from an agreement with the local official Barcelona supporters group, Penya Barcelonista Washington D.C. The group, which has more than 900 members ranging from die-hard disciples to fair-weather fans, began showing up at the pub to watch Barcelona games.

Terlep noticed the trend and struck up a conversation with members to see what they needed to do to make the bar their home base. A few food-and-drink specials later, the agreement was struck. Now the group drives in between 50 and 100 fans for smaller matches. And for Holy Grail-type games, such as Saturday’s final, officials are expecting 250-plus of Barcelona’s most boisterous.

“You can definitely tell from around the corner if somebody scored because the whole places shakes,” Terlep said.

The club’s fanatical support draws from the fact that Barcelona is one of four provinces that composes Catalonia, one of Spain’s autonomous regions that has its own language, culture — and occasional separatist movements.

“For a long time, Barcelona has been the shield of Catalonia, the way to promote Catalonian culture, the feeling of the people, the way to … understand life” said Raimon Puigjaner, President of Penya Barcelonista’s D.C. branch. “It’s not just soccer.”

And it certainly won’t be just Barcelona fans coming out for the game.

Manchester United’s supporters are expected to be out in force as well, and though the official United States supporters group doesn’t have a D.C. branch yet, the sheer size of the club ensures it has plenty of devotees around the District.

United, founded in 1878, has ranked No. 1 in Forbes’ World’s Most Valuable Teams list for seven years in a row, coming in this year with a total revenue of $1.86 billion. In D.C., seeing United fans in bars and on streets can be as common as a corner kick.

“I think the proliferation of accessibility to watching soccer games … has dramatically changed the landscape for American soccer fans,” said David Herman, the so-called Prime Minister of Public Relations for One United USA, Manchester United’s official supporters group in the States. “I think now, because of social networking, the Web and the immediacy [of modern-day society], fans and supporters really have the resonance they didn’t once have.”

And Saturday — at least for one day - perhaps soccer will steal the spotlight in Washington, no matter the winner.

“During a game [between Barcelona and rival Real Madrid last month], we had to stop letting people in the door because it was so full that after you walked in you … couldn’t get a beer; it was 100 percent capacity,” Terlep said. “We’re expecting something very similar Saturday.”

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