‘Here we take soccer very seriously’: Dedicated Brooklynites take sides ahead of World Cup semifinals

soccer players watch the world cup in brooklyn
Park Slope United players gather to watch the World Cup games before starting their own practice. The soccer championship has rallied local players and fans alike.
Photo courtesy of PSU.

The World Cup is nearing its end, and the global soccer championship has forged new bonds around the world as supporters cheer on their teams. Those bonds are on full display in Brooklyn, arguably one of the best places in the city to watch the cup — it is New York City’s most populous borough, and many of its neighborhoods are known for the diverse ethnicities of their residents. It is also the home of many soccer leagues.

Morocco will face France today at the cup’s semi-final. According to the Embassy of France in New York, about 3,000 French families live in Brooklyn, while the New York City metro area has the largest population of Moroccan immigrants, with approximately 11,000, according to the community of expatriates InterNations organization.

french world cup players celebrating on the field
France players during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between England and France on Dec. 10, 2022.AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

But it’s not just French and Moroccan natives who are interested in this game. The whole world will be watching. 

“We have players from all different parts of the world, so when we watch a game together, we have people rooting for any team,” said Nathan Bell, founder and executive director of Park Slope United, a soccer program with over 1,400 players. “If this World Cup has taught us something, it’s that the next generation of star players can come from anywhere. In the past, European and South American teams would dominate. But in this World Cup, there have been a lot of great results by teams from Africa, North America, especially the U.S., and Asian countries, and not by them getting lucky. They’ve shown good coaching and good player development.”

Originally from Croatia, as the cup as continued and teams were eliminated, Bell has had to switch from rooting for his native country to the U.S., then Brazil, since he admired they way they played and “loved how they celebrate.” Now, he’s rooting for France.

“I think the U.S. team showed that we have arrived to a world stage where we can play at an even level with the best countries, such as the game against England, that finished in a tie and even parts of the game against Netherlands, although we didn’t progress through,” said Bell.  “We have such a young team. The third youngest of any squad at the world cup, so I think there’s a lot of excitement about what the next four years will bring. Especially in 2026 when we host some of the games.”

people watch world cup game at Brooklyn bar
As the World Cup has progressed and teams have been eliminated, Bell has chosen different teams — including Brazil, who have since been knocked out — to support. Hundred of Brooklynites turned out to local bars to watch the the games last week. Christian Arnold

Bell said the World Cup is highly motivating to the players in the Park Slope United leagues, who show up early to watch parts of the games together before starting their practices. 

“They’re really captivated,” he said. “People have their favorite players that they watch week after week. These kids are more about following the stars, but if, for example, the parents are from France, they’re going to root for France.”

In another corner of Brooklyn, Mike Laraichi, a Bay Ridge deli owner who was born in Morocco but has lived in Brooklyn for over 36 years, has high hopes for his team. He has supported the Northern African country from the beginning.

“Here we take soccer very seriously, almost like a religion,” said Laraichi. “My Moroccan customers, they come and they’re overwhelmed with excitement. I put flags around the store, I give people something to drink and it has now become a neighborhood thing.”

Lairaichi had the chance to go to Russia to watch the last World Cup, but he says, this year, the games have been better to watch.

“Morocco has a great coach and there are so many fans there with them,” he said. 

deli owner holds up morocco scarf for world cup
Mike Lairiachi, a Bay Ridge deli owner who immigrated to Brooklyn from Morocco, cheered his team as they advanced to the World Cup semi-finals. Photo courtesy Councilmember Justin Brannan/Twitter

This Morocco squad has been coached by French-born Walid Regragui and contains 14 players born abroad. Their victories have united the Arab world, inspiring displays in different countries.

In New York, Lairaichi expects a celebration similar to the one that took place after Morocco beat Portugal on their last match.

“I think we will all get together in Times Square,” he said. “On Saturday there were over 200,000 people there. A mix between Algerian, Moroccan, Palestinians and Africans from all over, came with the Moroccan flag and danced to our music.”

Morocco became the first African country to reach the World Cup semifinals.

“No one is talking about politics, religion or about gas prices,” said Lairaichi. “This is new to us, but it’s a good look. Everyone is behind the players and if they win tomorrow, the whole Arab world will be overwhelmed, everyone from young kids to the oldest generation. Its a lot of pressure. Everything is possible.”