- Photo by Coca-Cola South Africa / CC
It’s hard to picture what the soccer equivalent of a basketball fan like Jack Nicholson would look like. Jack’s famous for his expressive body language and colorful verbal altercations with referees on the sidelines of LA Lakers basketball games. But in the hours leading up to the 2010 World Cup, it’s not basketball, football, or baseball that many Americans are getting riled up about. It’s soccer, and in New York City, the sport’s fans have contracted a full-blown case of soccer fever in anticipation of today, the day the World Cup kicks off in South Africa. I too had caught the bug—I’m heading to South Africa on June 20 to experience my first World Cup.
To prep for the tournament, and the matches I’d be seeing (Nigeria vs. South Korea in Durban, and a Round of 16 match in Cape Town), I decided to talk to as many soccer fans as I could before leaving the US. One of the first was Zyphus Lebrun, a serious soccer addict and 33-year-old TV producer born in St. Lucia who now calls New York home. Lebrun tells me he’s played defense on the “football pitch,” or soccer field, since he was a kid.
“I’m a huge football fan. I get up at 7 AM to watch English Premier Games,” Lebrun tells me as he drives around Brooklyn the Sunday evening before the World Cup. “I play football in 35 degrees [95°F] in Prospect Park . . . with people from Peru, Argentina, and Spain.”
“It’s against the law to grow up on a Caribbean island and not play football,” adds Lebrun’s friend, Duane Ferguson, 37, who is hanging out with Lebrun this evening.
The country where Ferguson grew up playing pick-up games, Trinidad, did not make it into this year’s World Cup. But that’s not surprising since qualifying for the World Cup is no mean feat. Two hundred countries vie for 32 spots, and even though the United States national team made the cut, Ferguson says he doesn’t see a red, white, and blue World Cup trophy.
“My head says Brazil, my heart says Argentina, but my money’s on Germany,” the midfielder says, before adding that his friend Lebrun wants France to win because the 2006 French national team was 80 percent black.
“France and the Ivory Coast,” Lebrun corrects him, his St. Lucia accent surfacing. “Because I’m part French and I really like the striker on the Ivory Coast. I know France is going to bite the bullet.” The Ivorian striker is Didier Drogba, who is also captain of the country’s national team. Drogba broke his right arm during a warm-up match earlier this month though, so may not be able to play in the Cup.
Both Lebrun and Ferguson plan to watch their favorite players compete in all of the World Cup games on television in New York, including the final match on July 11, which ESPN will broadcast from the Johannesburg stadium. They say they may find themselves in Manhattan’s East Village to catch some of the games at Nevada Smiths, an Irish-owned soccer bar that some regulars call “The Church” because of its obsession with football.
A quick look at the bar confirms the moniker. Football boots and jerseys signed by the 2006 US World Cup squad, Real Madrid’s Christiano Ronaldo (the most expensive player in football’s history), and even by rocker Rod Stewart—he signed his Celtic jersey away after watching Scotland beat France—adorn the pub’s walls. A giant projection screen broadcasts 100 live matches a week, along with fourteen plasma screens mounted to the bar’s walls. Irish bartenders offer up pints and packets of Walkers crisps.
Jack Keane, one of the bar’s managers, is a die-hard football fan who hates it when his patrons use the word “soccer” over “football.” (He calls America’s National Football League “the anti-Christ.”) Given his fervor for the game, it’s no surprise that Keane and his staff have already got a plan for keeping fans happy during the first US World Cup match against England, a formidable rival, on Saturday.
“We have loads of beer and loads of plastic cups,” Keane says. He expects the bar will have to close its doors at 7 AM on Saturday because it will have reached its 500-person capacity. The game doesn’t start until 2:30 PM New York time. “It’s really every man for himself. At the end of it all, we hope that we are all still standing.”
The bar’s manager adds that he expects more World Cup fans at Nevada Smiths than in 2006, when the World Cup was held in Germany. That’s because Keane says ESPN has invested millions—$10 million by some counts—advertising and broadcasting the tournament. The sports cable network even wallpapered the north wing of New York’s Port Authority complex with large colorful posters touting each of the World Cup qualifying teams with national symbols that represent each contender. The US national team’s poster depicts eight American players rowing a boat named “E Pluribus Unum.” A gilded eagle rests on the boat’s stern while star-spangled flags flap in the wind.
And then there’s the new technology that’s surfaced since 2006, Keane says, including World Cup iPhone apps, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds.
“This is the national team of America on the world stage,” Keane says. “There is not a person between 10 and 50 years old that is not aware of what is going on.”
Even though the nearly 8,000 miles between New York and South Africa make it impossible for thousands of New York soccer fans to attend the World Cup, football fan Duane Ferguson says he’s not bitter about the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which organizes the tournament, choosing South Africa as the host country.
“It had to be South Africa because of the past, the history,” Ferguson says towards the end of our conversation. He’s talking about South Africa’s long history of Dutch colonialism, segregation and its more recent repeal of apartheid legislation in the 1990s. “There’s still a lot of physical and emotional scars. The World Cup is . . . an opportunity for countries to come together and put politics aside. It’s very brave for South Africa to do that.”