As Max said yesterday, Association Football was at the home office, watching the USA v England game at the best soccer bar in Washington (and beyond): the Lucky Bar. Because of the growth of support for the beautiful game in America, it is not possible to simply show up for the game, you have to get there early. And for a 2:30 pm game on a Saturday afternoon with two games on beforehand, you had to get there very early. The doors opened at 7:00 am and as crazy as it sounds, if you wanted to get one of the prime spots with unobstructed views of the dozens of tvs, you had to get there before that.
I arrived at 6:40 and was about 10th in line. When the doors opened, we streamed in. Thanks to a very friendly Argentina fan Burt, we shared a table and had a great vantage point for all three matches. To chronicle the seven plus hour adventure through the early games to the USA v England kickoff, we took a photo every hour on the hour. The first at right, capturing the group a little bleary eyed as we sat down and ordered our coffee. The rest of the pictures are after the jump. Clearly, we moved on from coffee at some point.
South Korea v Greece started the day’s soccer at 7:30, and while as you can tell from the background of the first picture the crowd were mostly US supporters, there were about a dozen Korean fans and a handful of Greeks. By 8:00 am it was standing room only – comfy in our seats we got some plaintive looks from US fans as they stood on and watched the South Koreans get the upper hand on a Greece team that looked stuck in the mud. The Koreans were in full voice as their went ahead with ease, and it didn’t look as if Greece ever got in the game. As you can see, we had received our coffee and breakfast. I am pleased to say that even though we were set to do battle on the field in Rustenberg, that didn’t prevent this band of US fans from ordering a full English breakfast (Lucky Bar’s specialty). What isn’t their specialty, however, is coffee. And by the way, that is water in those clear plastic cups. We’re insane, but not that insane – we still had six and a half hours to go before kickoff.
Two hours in, we had finished our food and endured much of the rather dull first game. The crowd was completely full at this point, and you can see that behind our table, American fans are lining up in the passage ways getting ready to stand for the next five and a half hours to wait for the US game to start. What you can also see thanks to Nico is that we decided sometime between 8 and 9 am to switch from coffee to beer. For those of you who may look down on us for this choice, it really wasn’t a choice, the coffee is really bad (but hey, its a soccer bar, we weren’t there for the coffee). At this point, we should say a very sincere note of thanks to our server Jen, who had to endure a massive crowd with just one other server, dealing with not just a ton of tables, but with fans in this ‘area’ or that ‘space’ often eating as well as drinking – not fun.
We were hoping that the day (and tournament) would spring into life with the kickoff of Argentina v Nigeria – and we were not disappointed. Almost from the first minute, Argentina were on the front foot and Lionel Messi was equal amounts mesmerizing and unstoppable. But let’s not forget to give credit to the much maligned Argentine manager Diego Maradona (maligned as a coach, that is). Argentina scored what remarkably turned out to be the game’s only goal on a clear set play from a corner designed to get Gabriel Heinze a free header, and he got it and buried it. At this point, there was a substantial line to get in even though, as is evident from the larger crowd in and around us they had let in more people to catch the action from Messi et al. Well done to Nigeria though, it looked like they might get overrun in the first 15 minutes but they held on and did well. Those coffee cups will be there for a while.
Halftime in the Argentina – Nigeria game brought some down time and good preparation for the long two and a half hour delay between the end of this game and the US kickoff. Calista has joined the fun (and actually took the 10 am photo). The lubrication is clearly lifting the mood, with Sam and Nico hooting their approval at our now hourly ritual and pleased that we are approaching the midway point in the endurance contest to reach the kickoff. We had worked hard to pace ourselves through the day, but looking at Payson here, perhaps he should have slowed down a touch. Bert and his girlfriend are clearly more focused on the match, deep in conversation about how it is possible that Argentina was only one goal up despite half a dozen clear chances either for or created by Messi. I share their puzzlement, as Argentina looked impressive but couldn’t punch another goal past the Nigerian keeper, who was amazing.
Noon brought lunch. A good demonstration of how impossible it must have been to be waiting on these by this time pretty rowdy bunch(es), when they changed the menu cards from breakfast to lunch, a chorus of ‘Lunch, Lunch, Lunch, Lunch’ rang out around the main room. The Nigerians seen off and his nerves eased, Bert has joined wholeheartedly in the fun. The coffee cups are having a hard time holding their own on an increasingly crowded table. Food was a welcome addition, as we had crossed the midway point and everything was downhill from here. Payson seems to be sinking deeper into the table, but I know he did order the fish and chips and he did eat it. This occupied us for a while, but we were just at the start of the long homestretch of two and a half hours before the next game. What would we do?
Max gave us the answer. We clearly felt that we had crossed the threshold when we were definitely going to make it to kickoff. I should note that to my amazement this did not happen with much frequency. There was a fabulous demonstration of what an American fan would use a Vuvazela for – a funnel. The table right behind Bert started up a raucous game of quarters. Seriously. What else are you going to do for two plus hours in the early afternoon when you’ve been drinking for hours? At this point, we were joined by another friend who somehow managed to navigate the impossibly long line and get in. He may have had a hand in egging Max on as he was trying to catch up rapidly to the original crew, always a losing battle. It is just remarkable that the same people keep showing up in the same places in the background, they were standing for HOURS just to watch this game.
Clearly, we’ve moved on from calm and comfortable to a frenzy of rapturous energy just 30 minutes from kickoff. We are nearly there. There were about two dozen English fans there – frankly many fewer than I had expected given how many English live in DC. And Lucky Bar played to the crowds of supporters. It started with the theme from Euro 96 which England hosted – Football’s Coming Home. They were in full voice and did rather well, but had absolutely no chance to match this powerful rendition of Born in the USA. It was on. The atmosphere throughout the day was just remarkable and it only grew as the game approached. And it was all good natured, even with the incredibly high stakes of a World Cup opener, and the beer. Max and I were at the same place for the USA v Italy game in 2006 and it was amazing. This was better. Being at the game must have been unbelievable. But I would be hard pressed to have a better experience watch a US national team game in any better atmosphere than it was at Lucky Bar yesterday.
Absolutely no chance to take the 3 and 4pm pictures – both coming during the action and it was far too tense to break off to take a picture. In any event, I was feverishly texting and emailing my English friends (at least I was after the Robert Green howler) and trying to dry off my blackberry from the shower of beer it endured when Dempsey’s shot somehow found its way across the line. It was literally raining beer as untold cups were flung skyward as arms and hands went up in celebration. It collected on the ceiling and would drip back down on us as the game went on. It wasn’t a win, but as our obvious joy shows, it was a good result and a great point for the US team. The weak goal they scored not withstanding, the Slovenians do not pose anything like the threat of the English, and we emerged with a point despite not firing on all cylinders. Its all there to play for and that’s exactly what we wanted when we were drawn against England in the opener.
The end of the game turned out to be Payson’s last stand. Fortunately, my place isn’t that far from the Lucky Bar. After we had a slight detour through Dupont Circle to check out the outdoor screens – there were thousands of people out and about after watching the game in the 95 degree heat, amazing – we made it back to my place just in time for Payson to find a comfortable spot to rest his weary head. I feel as if we’ve matured a great deal as a soccer country. Perhaps we delighted a bit too much in a draw, after all, we drew with eventual champions Italy last time out. But this year it just feels different. The team is better and much more skilled and is in with a chance to make some noise in this tournament. Yet its the attention the World Cup is getting around the country not just for the amazing event that it is, but for the US team and its chances and support. A proud day, even for Payson.
A bit later, Max found a much more dignified place to rest his weary head – a lounge chair by the pool as we tried to cool down after after a long, long day. As for me, I ordered some Chinese and watched the US game again. We were fortunate to get the goal, but the draw did not flatter us. They created more chances, but our defense held firm and played pretty darn well. Our goalkeeper was the difference, but its not as if he stood on his head like the Nigerian goalie who miraculously kept his side in the game. Jozy could easily have had his shot go in rather than off the post, and Carragher could easily have been sent off. What a game. What a tournament. What a day!