STAMFORD -- Soccer's growing popularity is expected to draw some of the largest crowds downtown bars have seen all year and they're pulling out all the stops to attract fans paying allegiance to an array of flags.
The Castle Bar & Grill on Summer Street looks like the United Nations with flags representing the 32 nations competing in this year's month-long World Cup tournament starting Thursday in Brazil.
In preparation of the opening match between Brazil and Croatia, Castle has brought in Brazilian dancers, who will perform during halftime and after the game. The two-floor venue, which has a capacity of 175, is also raffling off an English soccer jersey on Saturday, and a USA jersey on Monday to coincide with the two countries' games on those days.
"I anticipate on weekends and during nighttime games we will be the busiest," said Mags O'Brien, bartender at the Summer Street establishment. "And hopefully, maybe those working will come out and watch the game at the bar instead of eating lunch at their desk."
This year's tournament, unlike the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, will feature many afternoon and prime-time matches for those on the East Coast.
Tigin Irish Pub has added an outdoor tent that will double its capacity, along with two more flat-screen televisions. It is also offering a $1 million tournament prize bracket, with consolation prizes ranging from several hundred dollars to complimentary food and drink.
"I'm really looking forward to it," said Fulton, a native of Scotland. "It's like seeing 10 Super Bowls at once."
"I'm getting paid a lot of money to watch these games," Fulton added, who picked Argentina to win the tournament. "I'm like a kid in a candy store."
Fulton is several years retired from soccer, but some younger players are just beginning their foray into the world's most popular sport.
Kevin Fallon, Director of Stamford Recreation's Soccer Tikes program, which teaches children ages 3 to 6 the fundamentals of the game, said that registration is directly affected by the World Cup.
"Each year the World Cup is on, we see a spike, but then eventually it filters out," said Fallon. "So we can expect to see some growth in the fall initially."
The program, which began in 2003, featured one class of 15 kids. Now in its 12th year, the spring session had four classes of 150 kids.
"Each year, it seems like the parents have become more knowledgeable," said Fallon. "There's more games on television now and more access to high-level soccer, so that's probably why."
FIFA's latest Big Count in 2006 -- a survey of its 207 member associations - showed that over 265 million play the sport, and another 3.5 billion are fans. According to data released by Nielson Scarborough this year, the number of Americans who watch professional soccer has increased by 32 percent since 2010, including a 24 percent rise in Major League Soccer viewership.
With the increasing popularity of the sport comes a greater demand for merchandise. Maynor Gonzalez, owner of Soccer Land on Summer Street, said his shop has seen its busiest two weeks of business in its five-month existence.
"We've been selling a lot of jerseys. Mainly Brazil, Argentina and Germany," said Gonzalez. "But everyone has been pushing us to include jerseys with players' names on the backs of them."