June 13, 2010
U.S. vs England in San Francisco's Lower Haight
By the start of today's match between the upstart Americans and the soccer heavies from England, every inch of standing room was filled at Nickies in San Francisco's Lower Haight. The Brits were in the back, judging from the cheers when England scored just a few minutes into the match.
Actually, most of the fans of England in the neighborhood were down the street at The Mad Dog in the Fog. A sign outside said it was rated the ninth-best soccer pub in the world (think about what that means, in an American city, for this most global of games). Arriving two hours before match time the place was already packed like an agribiz stockyard. There was definitely a buzz, just no place to move. There was also a $10 minimum/cover which seemed ungenerous, given the freebies offered by some of the other meeting points for the matches.
So off to Nickies it was, with its World Cup banners, country flags and U.K. beer signs. I sat across from a Latina couple playing cards while waiting for the start of the match. One of the managers tried to navigate her bicycle through the crowd, then came back and switched all the TV channels before the feed moved from ESPN to ABC, which meant that for ten minutes an increasingly drunk and rowdy crowd was watching Hannah Montana. Who says we don't love soccer.
Although the patrons included many who were there for the event value and the excuse for a handful of Bloody Marys, based on conversations with the fans and the way they followed the flow of the match there was a basic understanding of the game, its rules and strategy, more than one would expect given the reputation of the U.S.
There was perhaps a little too much cheering for Tim Howard's saves (he was named Man of the Match). It's better that he stop the ball, of course, but if your goalkeeper is that busy it's bad news. In addition, at least a couple of the saves were gifts from England's players, who looked to be aiming for Howard's midsection instead of the net. There were a few of us standing on chairs in the corner looking down at the rest of the bar and you could see that some fans were shaking their heads with anxiety.
Still, when Clint Dempsey's shot trickled through the hands of England's goalkeeper Robert Green like a greased pig, the match was tied and the roof raised, creating an instant electric memory as full of energy as any pivotal moment in an American sport's championship game.
A pub that crowded is impossible to get into or out of, nor can one top off their refreshments. So a black market emerged for 16 oz cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, furtively fed through the front window at $5 a pop by one of the dozens of people on the sidewalk trying to catch a glimpse of the match. The same windows were opened wider for people to defenestrate so they could use the loo at the pizza place next door.
Back to Mad Dog after the match to watch the exodus. If you have no interest in soccer or the Cup it is still worth witnessing this moment. Soccer matches are not long by American sports standards (2 hours including intermission). But they are very intense, so when people emerge from darkened pubs into the sun it's like they're coming out of a sweat lodge or some tribal ritual.
In any case, Mad Dog truly is an international soccer pub. People streamed out with jerseys and flags and other accoutrement for perhaps half of the 32 countries in the tournament.
England's fans were relatively stoic given that the catastrophic miscue of their keeper probably cost them the match. Still, given the superior attitude lorded over American fans by the English this must have been killing them inside. (Good luck wishes before the match were usually answered with "We won't need it.") This suffering was confirmed by walking back into the pub and witnessing over the course of the next hour the salve of complete inebriation.
As for the U.S. side, the match made an excellent start in getting to the Round of 16, which is a minimum requirement in order for this to be a successful tournament for the Yanks. If you want to see who the U.S. still needs to play, get up at 4:30 tomorrow morning to watch Slovenia and Algeria. Now that's a true fan.
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