WC 2014: Experiencing football as nothing more than a fan

Darrian Traynor

Yesterday, I finally dropped my role as blogger and became nothing more than a fan of football. It was amazing.

Back in the 2010 World Cup, I joined what seemed like 1,000 people in Washington DC's Dupont Circle to watch the opening match for both England and the United States in the World Cup. Then I wrote about it here, got bitten by the bug, and began writing about Aston Villa almost full time. Since then, I've yet to do the whole "communal watching of football" again.

Well, yesterday I decided to give it a go. Thanks to the other writers here at 7500 to Holte agreeing to get coverage for the day, I was freed to make my way to football bars for the first time in my life. I needed to be home to cook dinner for the Chile-Australia match, but that left me with two matches to scope out what it was like to watch football with others.

For Mexico-Cameroon, I took the advice of Kevin McCauley and checked out Public Bar here in DC. There I found a decidedly pro-Mexico crowd, which was a bit of a problem. See, I'm a big fan of the United States, and part of that obligation is hating Mexico. Because screw Mexico. But in the opening minutes, I still hadn't foound anyone rooting for Cameroon, and the Mexico fans were starting to win me over. Every touch in the offensive third brought loud cheers from the Mexico fans, and it began to get a little infectious. They had noisemakers, sombreros, and one guy with a vuvuzela who actually used the thing well.

Luckily, Samuel Eto'o made one of his few good plays early in the match and alerted me to the fact that my first friend of the day was standing just to my right. I asked Ransford (which turned out to be his name) if he was supporting Cameroon because Cameroon or because screw Mexico. It turns out that he is a bit more noble than I am, and was actually cheering for Cameroon rather than against El Tri. He was originally from Ghana, but despite the fact that we would be enemies on Monday, the two of us thoroughly enjoyed being the lone fans not cheering for Mexico in the bar. Beers were bought for one another and a wonderfully amicable conversation was struck up.

And luckily, since neither of us were really Cameroon fans as a first choice, the loss didn't hurt too badly. Instead, I got to enjoy the raucus noise of more than a hundred Mexico fans as they finally got to see their team score what would be the match's only goal. 2 hours and four beers after I arrived, I was hooked on this whole "viewing in a bar" thing.

But I had planned to mosey on up to my neighborhood in DC and try a little restaurant that I had heard was showing the matches for Netherlands-Spain. I took the bus back homewards and walked into Marx Cafe to find the owner, bartender, and two patrons there. I figured that would be all the people we'd see, but people started trickling in as kickoff neared and soon the place was... well, not packed, but pleasantly full. When I first walked in, the owner had asked who I was supporting, and when I said that since I was a Villa fan and had to cheer for Ron Vlaar, it'd be the Netherlands. This earned me a big smile and a happy welcome. I soon realized that the Netherlands vuvuzela and the Ajax scarf were signs that I'd stumbled (by pure happenstance) on a minor outpost of the Dutch football world. Perfect!

We were joined before long by two girls with the Dutch red white and blue on their faces and orange and blue dresses (and fingernails!) which meant that our crew as the match kicked off was quite the mix. We had me in my Villa kit, Manny, the jovial Mexican bartender who seemed to know everyone, these two super-fan girls, a surly-looking smoker also supporting the Netherlands, and a few other people. Eventually, it was my luck that Tim joined us as well, wearing his Netherlands Oranje kit. Manny instantly handed him a double (triple?) of bourbon and a beer. I jokingly asked him if he was stressed at all and just got a laugh.

Apparetly Tim's grandparents were Northern Dutch (this was important. "We do a lot of milking of things," I was told) and he had been a lifelong supporter of the club. He was also a regular of the bar, which he told me was usually a bastion of Spain supporters. I got to hear the story of how he had been in the bar's betting pool for the last World Cup and had nearly gotten into a fight with a Welshman who had been in the British special forces. The reason? The Welshman was standing on a stool celebrating the Spanish victory that had won him $500 and Tim was not happy to see his Dutchmen dragged through the mud in such a manner.

Tim's a pretty great guy.

Xabi Alonso's early goal elicited a few groans, but it felt as if most everyone had been expecting it. At the stroke of halftime we got the amazing Robin van Persie diving header, though, and the place went wild. By the time the Netherlands had four goals, Tim asked Manny to whip up something orange and alcoholic with which to celebrate the impending victory with his new friends: the girls at the end of the bar (who had been joined by a friend), me, the surly smoker, and a couple of other people. It felt as if I'd been accepted into some secret club.

After I took the shot, I had to run to the bathroom. Coming back before I left, I wanted to thank Tim (whose name I didn't know yet) but he was gone. I shook Manny's hand–feeling for all the world as if I were a regular at the bar and we were already friends–and walked outside where I found Tim smoking. I got the chance to thank him and chat about the match for a second. As I was getting ready to go home, he told me that he'd be at the bar all day the next day and that I should come on up.

The Public was exactly what I had expected from a soccer bar here in DC. And it was fantastic. Good beer, rowdy atmosphere, and a massive projection television. But Marx Cafe was better by a factor of 10. It felt as if a bunch of people from the neighborhood were just hanging out and doing something that they all loved together. It reminded me of the bug that bit me in 2010, that feeling that football was something that was great on its own and even better with others.

I've been working a lot lately and haven't been home a ton, so there's almost zero chance that I disappear for the entire day tomorrow. But after getting another taste of communal football, you can be certain that I'll be heading up to Marx Cafe to catch at least one of the games. It just wouldn't feel right to watch the World Cup without Manny, Tim, the Dutch girls and everyone else there.

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