FilmBar in downtown Phoenix is showing the World Cup semifinals and final.EXPAND
FilmBar in downtown Phoenix is showing the World Cup semifinals and final.
Sean Holstege

FilmBar Turns Into an Intimate Soccer Arena for World Cup Fans

There are many ways to watch a huge soccer match, even one as momentous as a World Cup semifinal.

France overcame Belgium 1-0 Tuesday to book its place in the finals, the world’s largest sporting event, one with an expected global TV audience of more than 1 billion people.

By now, a month into the tournament, if you’ve watched any of the high-stakes knockout games, you’ve probably seen huge throngs of jubilant fans in the street, from the sea of flags and faces in Moscow to the flares in Zagreb and the beers flying through the air in south London.

But there are other, more intimate ways to watch a semifinal, even in public.

On Tuesday, downtown Phoenix’s FilmBar opened its doors for free to anyone who wanted to come in the middle of a workday. About 20 did. And the event said as much about Phoenix, its aspirations, and its place in the world as it did about anything else.

Owner Kelly Aubey said he didn’t know what to expect, but he wasn’t doing it to rake in the cash.

“This is absolutely not about a business decision,” he said. “This is more for the love of the sport.”

Aubey explained that an English friend introduced him to soccer in the late 1990s. The cosmopolitan theater proprietor saw in the World Cup something more profound than 22 men kicking a round ball.

“It’s a global thing. It’s anti-xenophobia,” he said. “The people who follow this sport either come from other countries, or have a connection to them or aren’t afraid of other countries. Finally, I found a sport that fits my philosophy.”

Pierre Kaluzny of Lille, France, left, chats with FilmBar owner Kelly Aubey before the World Cup semifinal between France and Belgium on Tuesday.
Pierre Kaluzny of Lille, France, left, chats with FilmBar owner Kelly Aubey before the World Cup semifinal between France and Belgium on Tuesday.
Sean Holstege

“It brings out the best in people, and we’re reminded every four years that we are all in the same boat together,” he added.

So it didn’t matter whether one showed up and sat quietly, or 101 showed up and noisily packed the place.

Instead, a tight knot of mostly French friends and family showed up. The first through the door was Pierre Kaluzny, a 41-year-old who came from Lille in northern France, 10 miles from Belgium. He wore the French blue national shirt, with one star above the crest of the cockerel. One star for one World Cup victory, the one on home soil in 1998. He came to Phoenix seven years ago.

There were Belgium fans, too, all locals, none Belgian. They liked the underdog story, the team that never reached a final.

The game pitted two of the three best teams in the world. They had come into their own in the latter stages of the tournament, and both teams and their benches were packed with world-class talent.

It was the final that should have been, but one was going out today in St. Petersburg, nearly 5,700 miles away from FilmBar.

If Kaluzny was nervous, he wasn’t showing it. He chatted casually with bar staff, smiling before kickoff.

“I’m super-excited and nervous. Belgium is pretty good. I expect a great game and a French win,” he said, before heading into the dark theater of 76 seats. “I would love a 3-2 win for France.”

When he was in France, Kaluzny would watch the national team with his family. He chose to come to FilmBar because it had the same feel. Over the next 20 minutes, close friends and family drifted in and took their seats next to him in the middle of the theater.

Aubey had the Telemundo broadcast on, because there was more passion and excitement about commentary in Spanish. About 15 minutes in, he switched to the Fox presentation, because the patrons didn’t understand Spanish.

France fans react to a near miss in the first half of the World Cup semifinal against Belgium.EXPAND
France fans react to a near miss in the first half of the World Cup semifinal against Belgium.
Sean Holstege

The game started well for Belgium. They asserted themselves in the middle, had most of the possession time, and looked most likely to score. But there was a balanced ebb and flow to the game and both teams had decent chances in the first half. France grew into the game and looked the stronger team as the halftime whistle blew.

A good save from each goalkeeper, each one of the world’s best, kept the score tied at zero at halftime.

“I feel good. It’s a good game,” Kaluzny said.

The second half began like the first, with Belgium pressing. In the theater, the group around Kaluzny watched closely, chatted, but oohed every near miss, jumped up and held their heads in hands when France came close, and sat with palms on cheeks when Belgium threatened.

The decisive moment came six minutes into the second half. France scored from a corner. FilmBar erupted in shouts and hoots and hugs and high-fives. And smiles.

They acted as a family would, in their living room, in front of an oversize TV.

They didn’t drink much. There were no chants of foul-mouthed rants. There are lots of ways to watch a big soccer match.

Aubey walked in front of the screen with a small tricolor. A modest, tasteful celebration.

Belgium had more chances as France protected its priceless lead. The Red Devils, the Belgians, huffed and puffed, but the outcome never seemed in doubt. The game was more tense than dramatic: no boiling points, no huge controversies, no last-gasp salvation.

It ended 1-0 to France, with England or Croatia awaiting in Sunday's final.

The final whistle was greeted with hugs, smiles, kisses, and raised triumphant arms.

“It’s been 20 years since we’ve won. The coach won it (as a player) so the stars might be aligned,” Kaluzny said, broadly smiling.

For Aubey, the outcome was always irrelevant. It was the journey, not the destination, which counted.

Avant-garde movie houses do avant-garde things, for the sake of it. Around the time of the last World Cup, the 2014 tournament in Brazil, FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, which organizes the World Cups, released a history of the organization.

Dozens of top executives were being investigated, and later arrested or indicted, on corruption charges. Much of that stemmed from how this year’s tournament went to Russia and the next one, in 2020, to Qatar. The FBI led embarrassing public raids on FIFA.

That’s when the film United Passions came out. Gerard Depardieu starred as FIFA’s founder, supported by a strong cast, including Sam Neill and Tim Roth. It was like a metaphor for FIFA. The embattled organization spent $32 million to produce the film. It grossed $200,000.

It was pure propaganda, with laughably implausible or ironic lines, and became its own punchline for anybody who knew the real story. Just about every film critic harshly ridiculed it.

FilmBar chose to run United Passions, along with one other theater in New York. Only one person watched the Phoenix screening.

“I knew it would be a train wreck. That’s something we do at FilmBar,” Aubey said.

It was a lark. The same instinct behind showing awful, cringe-worthy B-list horror or sci-fi films. It’s a cultish thing to do, and part of FilmBar’s natural, organic, unforced charm.

“You don’t open a movie theater (in 2007) with the intent of making a lot of money. I did it because I want to see more of this in this city,” Aubey said. “We did it because we love culture and we did it to add some funky texture to our culture. You create the city you live in.”

So putting on a free-admission airing of foreign sport for a game in the middle of a workday for 20 people makes complete sense. For 90 minutes, FilmBar became an island of culture, an intimate oasis from all the ugliness of the world outside the glass door.

There are many ways to watch a World Cup semifinal.

FilmBar is showing the Croatia-England game on Wednesday, July 11. Admission is free. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. local time. On Sunday, FilmBar shows the final, which starts at 8 a.m. local time. Admission is $10, and half the seats have been sold.

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