NEW YORK — The U.S. and England are often described as two nations divided by a common language, and football is the ultimate example of this misunderstanding.
Yes, yes, the population of each would identify a completely different sport by that name: the English invented what Americans call “soccer,” the Americans what the English call “American football.”
But the chasm runs deeper, and in two pubs on two sides of the Atlantic this past week — Foley’s in midtown Manhattan and Cafe Kick in East London — the World Cup threw all these national eccentricities, some charming, some not, into sharp focus.
The English watch the match, and they critique and coach endlessly. They also know the players on other sides, identifying them not so much as Danes or Slovenes but rather by the professional outfits who pay their salaries.
Of course, some American fans can pull this off and Team USA has done a good job of emphasizing that the gap between American soccer and the self-proclaimed lords of the sport in the rest of the world has shrunk to insignificance. But most regard it as more of a spectacle. The American fan who really knows the game is still is an outrider, an athletic version of a Trekkie. You won’t hear a Yank turn to the rest of the barroom and shout — as a patron in London did that evening — “remember that cracking hit against AC Milan last year?” There would be little chance of anything more than pity from his American compatriots.
Cafe Kick is unprepossessing as British pubs go — a hole in the wall, really, located in Exmouth Market, an East London street where the battle between upscale eateries and old English neighborhood joints appeared every bit as fierce as the war between Brazil and North Korea on the flat screen in the first round of the tournament.
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The place was packed, in part with Brazilians wearing their national colors, but also with locals wearing the kit of their hometown favorites, which over the past decade have tapped Brazil’s rich vein of football talent to fill the rosters of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and Tottenham Hotspurs.
Jackie Serlaine, bedecked in Tottenham’s white, blue and yellow jersey, told everyone who listened that only his side could boast a member of Brazil’s 2010 World Cup squad, the goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes.
“Arsenal and United have some relics, yeah, but we’ve got the up and comer,” he said.
The throng in Cafe Kick heaved in horror when the plucky North Koreans scored in the last 15 minutes of the match. “That may keep one of this lot out of the gulag,” someone shouted to laughs all around.
Fast-forward to Foley’s, an Irish pub on the east side of midtown in Manhattan which takes its drinking seriously. “The First Pub To Ban ‘Danny Boy’,” reads the banner above the door, a reference to the ballad endlessly looped by “Irish-for-a-day” types on St. Patrick’s day. Foley’s clientele on an average day is as likely to hail from County Kerry as from Queens, but during the World Cup the bar bowed to the realities of time zones and America by opening each day at 7:30 a.m.
While the Irish-born clearly knew their p’s and q’s, several of the American patrons arouse suspicion. Jason, one of a group of 20-somethings from Brooklyn College, admitted he really wasn’t interested in the Cup but “the thought of hangin’ in a bar all morning was kinda interesting.”
But even among the Irish, the devotion to the pure ballet of it all seemed lacking. Ireland’s side, somewhat famously if you’re Irish, had been displaced in South Africa by France in a qualifying match decided by a goal that, upon video examination, clearly was put into the goal by a Frenchman’s hand.
The search for vengeance was palpable in Foley’s Thursday as France played — improbably for a great European football power — for its World Cup life against South Africa. Foley’s, from the start, had promised a shot for every goal scored against the hated French, whose many efforts to arm Irish rebellions against England through the centuries have been erased by the hand of a French striker.
“Bloody duplicitous Frenchmen,” Connor O’Failan, who lives in the Bronx, railed as they took the pitch. The crowd booed and hissed every time a French player touched the ball. When, 20 minutes in, South Africa scored the first of its two goals, the bar erupted and shots were served all around.
A second goal about 15 minutes later added fuel to the fire, so that, by the time the French managed a meager single goal toward the end of the match, no one seemed to notice.
“Serves them bloody right,” O’Failan said. “I’ve seen justice done.”
The Brooklyn College kids looked on with bemusement, but happily drank down the free shots and many others besides.
Indeed, vengeance seemed to be the point in the U.S., and not just at Foley’s. When the U.S. tied England 1-1 during the tournament’s first weekend, references to Bunker Hill and Paul Revere were all over the U.S. newspapers. Evidence in those same papers that anyone in America paid attention to the other matches that weekend were few and far between.
The English, steeped in their history of frustrating early exits in World Cup tournaments, huffed and kicked the dirt. “Not Again!” read the headline in the Sunday Times of London. Americans wouldn’t have known what “again” referred to.
So, yes, we can play with the best — we’ve yet to show we can really beat the best — but there’s no reason to think we can’t. But the American men on the field and the tiny percentage of fans who understand what they are up to still seems to be disproportionately small.
The U.S. already has outlasted France and Italy in the tournament, and we may outlast Germany and England, too. But it would still be an enormous exaggeration to say that football — a.k.a. soccer — has set down roots in America.