June 24, 2010
American Soccer Players Are New Heroes
Jeff Klein at The New York Times Soccer Blog has gathered a wonderful video collection of 17 celebrations around the country (many of them here in California). Most of them are either after Landon Donovan's stoppage time goal or post-match, but this one from San Diego actually starts a few seconds before the goal so it captures the false start after Dempsey's kick into the goalkeeper, an intake of breath, then the explosion. It's just what it felt like at Nickies in the Lower Haight and one imagines all over the country.
This intense interest in the World Cup is more about national pride than a new-found love of soccer. Hopefully interest in the game will continue to grow for kids and their parents, because of all the team sports it's the one that will produce the highest degree of physical fitness, which according to statistics we desperately need to provide for our young.
It's even easy to imagine highly competitive high school soccer in more parts of the country but the economics and the low scoring will prevent the game from catching on at the professional spectator level. However, the United States international team could continue to improve dramatically as more and more kids go to play in the European leagues after they leave school.
Whatever happens later, for now it sure is great to get up at 5:30 in the morning and to go find a pub to share this team with others. It's also fantastic to play well in the world's game. Take a look at the bottom of the NYT blog's game play-by-play. It was a joy to read all the well-wishing comments from around the world.
It feels, too, that this team which plays a foreign game has an iconic American hero. Donovan is slight, without much swagger to him. He spends most of his time running, and his rush up the field on the winning goal was breathtaking. But he is most compelling when he stands still.
When Donovan is poised before the ball at a corner kick or a free kick he has an air of quiet certainty, alertness and complete self-possession. His confidence and attention radiate to his teammates and to all of us.
There's a little Tom Hanks in these photos, but when he is surveying the pitch before kicking the ball into play it is more like Gregory Peck, as if Atticus Finch were a coach whose job is to integrate a high school team in the 1960s American South.
He tells us with his eyes that he's going to get it done. A hero makes people say "That's what I want to be like." Donovan inspires that.
June 22, 2010
Who's Having Sex at the World Cup?
Who cares if nobody is scoring in the matches as long as there's plenty of action elsewhere and so far this World Cup has delivered. There is the controversy over the new ball, the vuvuzelas, the concern that the South African infrastructure was going to collapse and the fear that the citizenry would butcher and pillage their guests.
We have the quadrennial reminder that nobody in FIFA's tower can be bothered about whether the matches are refereed properly and that if the players, coaches, media and fans want answers they can shove a Jabulani where even Beckham can't bend it.
The French are having an epic farcical collapse, the Italians are one loss away from joining them, and don't fly into Heathrow without a parachute if England falls to Slovenia tomorrow (What if the sodding Yanks get in??!!).
Which brings us to the universal language, the only hierarchical need that approaches soccer these 31 days. Who's getting it from whom and who's upset about it? Who's deprived? Will the English dames arrive in time? Will John Terry need a scorecard? How does a celebrity romance become an international incident? Enter here and here and here and here and if you aren't otherwise occupied you can keep doing it all day and night.
June 21, 2010
World Cup Soccer & Brazilian Samba
A reasonably thorough inspection of soccer pubs and restaurants in San Francisco and Berkeley over the past ten days reveals that while there may be more people supporting the English and Mexican soccer teams in the Bay Area there is nobody having as much fun as the Brazilians.
On Sunday the Brazilian World Cup team once again gave its fans a reason to dance (as if they need an excuse) with a 3-1 trouncing of Cote d'Ivoire. Of the several places in the Bay Area which are hosts for Brazilian fans this time we chose Martin Macks on Haight St. in San Francisco. You might ask yourself how an Irish pub has become a place to samba....
So we have Thierry Henry and FIFA to thank. What a way to convert the Irish mourning and outrage at being cheated out of the World Cup into something positive that we all get to share. In addition, the pub burned down less than two years ago so we're lucky it's here at all. This is a review shortly after it re-opened.
On this perfect San Francisco Sunday the seats were gone 30 minutes before the match and most of the standing room taken by the national anthem, as you can see.
The kitchen and floor staff did an excellent job of getting food and drink to the mob, no easy task. There were plenty of TV screens, flags everywhere, and even a samba band at halftime and after the match. There is nothing like a room full of happy people doing the samba to make you want to move and to remind you to make sure that at least part of life be a party.
Brazil's next match is Friday against Portugal, the match soccer fans have been waiting for since the first round groupings were announced. Brazil is ranked first in the world and Portugal is third - it's unusual for two highly-ranked teams to be in the same group so expect a great match. Play hooky.
June 18, 2010
Joy in the Mission As Mexico Beats France in the World Cup
The top shelf of the bar at El Farolito Soccer Club is lined with trophies won by the team over the past 20 years or so. They must be nailed to the wood because that's they only way they didn't come crashing to the ground during Mexico's dominating 2-0 victory over France Thursday in both countries' second World Cup match.
There were whistles and horns and flags and songs and a couple of television crews. It was so loud you couldn't even hear the vuvuzelas.
To our left was an 86-year-old Nicaraugan with a firm handshake and a bottomless glass of vodka. He was looking for bets at the bar and was probably the only person rooting for France. I asked him why and he said that he'd lived in the U.S. since 1945, raised a family here. The United States is his team and that if everyone wants to support Mexico they should go back home. He also said that he'd been paying his bar tabs for 30 years by betting against Mexico. But he didn't collect today.
To our right was an elegant 50-ish Guatemalan who looked like she was playing hooky from her job at the school library. In fact, everyone was playing hooky (or out of work) which added to the fun.
The announcers in Spanish also contributed to the atmosphere. ESPN made a great choice by using English announcers rather than Americans for their broadcasts but they are usually somewhat subdued. This guy, on the other hand, went 45 minutes without punctuation, sounding like a cross between an auction and a horse race.
With the taqueria shuttling burritos from next door it was a perfect day, the most fun of the tournament so far.
Capturing goals in real-time at a bar is next to impossible, unless it's a penalty kick. Here is the goal that gave Mexico an insurmountable 2-0 lead.
June 16, 2010
Youth Day During South Africa's World Cup
It was 34 years ago today that black students protested the apartheid policy of teaching classes in the Afrikaans language. The riots that day marked the beginning of the Soweto uprising, which in addition to drawing the attention of the world helped put the African National Congress (party of both Nelson Mandela and the current president, Jacob Zuma) in a leadership role in the struggle against apartheid, ending white rule within a generation.
The boy being carried in the photo to the left was killed by a police bullet that day. The Hector Pieterson Museum, which commemorates him and the struggle, is a moving and essential visit if you are in Johannesburg.
So it was appropriate that among other events to mark the day the South African soccer team played their second World Cup match this evening. Here is a video with Graeme Addison, a South African journalist who was at the scene on June 16, 1976.
SF Spaniards Gather on Belden Place for World Cup
Head east down Bush Street from San Francisco's Union Square and you will come across an alley called Belden Place, with maybe 10 restaurants on one block, most of them Mediterranean or seafood. Two of them are also a home base for World Cup soccer.
The French gather at Cafe Bastille while Spaniards congregate a few doors down, at B44. Spain is one of the favorites to win this year's tournament and they had their first match this morning, against Switzerland. There were about 35 people watching the big screen, some of whom were rooting for the Swiss, which won the match in the biggest upset of the first week.
Food was tasty and everyone was cheerful and alert for 7 a.m., even with the loss and also considering the Spanish reputation for late-night living. A quick check of the schedule doesn't reveal a single day in which more than one or two countries are represented by the restaurants on the block, so there is no opportunity to have an all-day all-you-can-watch soccer buffet. Maybe we'll be lucky in 2014.
The Mission will be hopping tomorrow, with Mexico playing Group A favorite France at 11.30. If you can't wait, or can't sleep, the Mercury Lounge will show their beloved Argentina against South Korea at 4:30 a.m.
June 15, 2010
Horatius, San Francisco's World Cup Host for Portugal
Horatius, in San Francisco's Potrero Hill, is an art gallery, bistro, event space, wine bar and culinary specialty shop. It is also one of the few places in San Francisco open for the 4:30 a.m. matches from South Africa, and offers the biggest screen in the city on which to watch them.
Horacio Gomes, founder and CEO, has like others given us a gift by sharing his passion for soccer, especially the Portugese variety. This morning Portugal played its first match of the 2010 World Cup, against the Ivory Coast. The match started at 7 am but by halftime most of the seats were taken by a crowd that included at least a few fans of Cote d'Ivoire's Elephants.
The space is more like a gallery than a bar or cafe, lit by candles on either side of the large screen. Folding chairs take up most of the floor and there are couches along the sides if you get there early enough. Farther back are tables where you can set up a laptop and eat breakfast.
Though the match was scoreless it was entertaining, with much artistry, and the crowd appreciated the drama and flow. Here is a short tour of the space, followed by an interview with Horacio (his last name is pronounced GOMSH, not Gomez, as it was mangled in the video). He'll be here every day, for every match. Come share a few.
June 13, 2010
Mercury Lounge is Argentina's SF Home for World Cup
Argentina won its first 2010 World Cup match on Saturday, beating Nigeria 1-0 on a goal in the first several minutes. Lionel Messi spent the rest of the match showing us why he is the best player in the world but Nigerian goaltender Vincent Enyeama had the answer every time, including a couple of truly spectacular reach saves.
But never mind that. What really matters is that there is a place in SOMA where soccer fans of any country can come and watch matches in a setting that was built for the World Cup from the heart. Check this out.
Urns of water and coffee, a free beer for anyone dedicated enough to arrive before the 7 a.m. start. A yummy "chicken or egg" breakfast wrap. Lots of TV screens. Here's an interview with Andrew (left) and Aaron (right).
They're open for the 7:00 games every day and expect to open for the 4:30 Argentina game next week. Come share the lunacy and love.
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.
June 11, 2010
The Bar Less Traveled: Mexico vs South Africa in World Cup Opener
A Yanqui walks into a taberna and... GOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!
The El Farolito Soccer Club is the place to watch Mexican football in the Mission, but it was already mobbed by the time the second half began. Just on the opposite side of the BART station entrance is Carlo's Club, which had two TVs and about 25 patrons devoted to the match. Day workers, a few tourists, some neighborhood fixtures, but mostly people of all sorts ducking in for a few moments on the way to the train.
Before being able to order an orange juice the ball was in the back of the South African net, an unmarked Rafael Marquez recipient of a cross-field pass which he calmly deposited, generating an impressive early-morning roar from the assembled. 1-1.
One patron noted that Mexico scored upon my arrival so I was made a good-luck charm. This was confirmed as regulation time was running out. South Africa played long ball for most of the rest of the match and almost converted, a shot from a speeding Katlego Mphela hitting the outside of the left post in the 90th minute.
Back to Farolito for the exodus. Most of the patrons were dressed in team colors. Many looked as though they had spent the night with their heads on the bar. This, by the way, is the great challenge of the tournament for social drinkers living on the West Coast. San Francisco, for example, is dry between 2 and 7 but the first match starts at 4:30. Does one get a few hours rest, an early breakfast, disappear into the darkness and drink out of a bag? Maybe a pickup game at the nearest soccer pitch. Match of the Living Dead.
The fans looked pleased with the result, perhaps relieved given the fact Mexico fell behind and almost lost in the final moments. South Africa is not an elite team but the host nation is always a danger lurking in the high grass.
Something has happened between 2006 and 2010 in the United States, or at least on the coasts. The World Cup has gone from under-appreciated to ubiquitous. The U.S. match with England tomorrow is even going to be shown at AT&T Park for free (and there's a ferris wheel for after). Have we finally fallen in love with the world's sport? Is this part of the Obama effect, our global re-entry? Or is it just another event to market and over-expose with product tie-ins? A little of each, maybe.
Here, by the way, is a great resource for finding out where to watch matches in the Bay Area, especially if you're looking for a country's home field advantage, as it were. They're looking for additions if you know where the North Koreans are hanging out.
Uruguay and France in less than 30 minutes. Meantime, chapeaus off for Bafana Bafana, as the South African side is called, extending the streak of host nations never losing the opening match.