NYC’s World Cup fever

Watching the World Cup on West 29th Street. Photo: Michael Garofalo
by jon friedman

Let me begin this piece by benevolently issuing a Public Service Announcement for my fellow non-soccer fans and, particularly, the vast minority of the New Yorkers who couldn’t care less about the World Cup.

You’re screwed, folks.

Do NOT schedule a business meeting at a restaurant bar during a World Cup match, especially when the combatants happen to be geographic rivals, Spain and Portugal. If you are so foolish as to do so, expect to be shouted out and thrown off your game every few seconds by rabid fans of either team. Whether they’re jubilant or in despair about the action, it doesn’t matter. Your meeting will be disrupted. Your pitch will be destroyed — and even your self-esteem can take a hit, too.

That’s exactly what happened to me when I tried to sit down with an ordinarily tough-to-reach journalist at my usual neighborhood restaurant bar, Petite Abeille. No doubt, the same sort of scene will continue to occur at various locations in the city until the World Cup wraps up.

If I had been paying closer attention that day to the match, I’d have noticed that Portugal’s megastar, Cristiano Ronaldo, had scored a spectacular hat trick (three goals) to force a 3-3 tie with its powerful neighbor Spain.

At first, I politely asked the exultant fans to cheer down, in George Harrison’s immortal phrase. Of course, they had the good sense to ignore me completely and enjoy the spectacle. I knew I was outnumbered when my guest chided me by saying, “Oh, let them have their fun. They only play the World Cup every four years.”

It was clearly the time for me to wave a white flag and appreciate the mastery of the soccer players, along with the rest of the world.

Beyond the fun of watching great athletes playing their hearts out for their countries, it’s easy to understand why New York City should feel such an emotional attachment to the global soccer tournament. We are cheering for our own people, in many cases.

The numbers tell a revealing story. According to the website, New York “is one of the few cities in the country in which four different racial/ethnic groups each make up at least ten percent of the population.”

The data go beyond the cliché that New York City is a melting pot and suggest that the World Cup competition is likely to offer something for every New Yorker, a team or a player that excites one of us on a personal level. (Sadly, the United States team did not qualify this time for the World Cup so Americans, as a group, have to look elsewhere.)

The World Cup also comes at an ironic time in history, as news events play out. The Trump administration’s controversial, to put it mildly, immigration policy hit a boiling point as the early stages of the World Cup took shape.

The same players we admire on TV, who are applauded for their skill, grit and courage, might have countrymen and women who could be routinely turned away at the southern U.S. border. And those soccer fanatics who were innocuously going crazy that afternoon in the bar or in watering holes around the nation might have had a special feeling of solidarity this year.

Who wants to meet me for coffee some afternoon — after the World Cup ends?

Jon Friedman, who has his hands full cheering for New York’s Rangers, Giants and Knicks, teaches journalism courses at Stony Brook University and Hunter College.