In which American fans cheer for Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been public enemy #1 just days earlier
Story and Photograph by Phil West
[E]ric Meixner, like a lot of American soccer fans, remembers where he was last December when the U.S. was drawn into this World Cup’s Group of Death. As he recalls, “I was at Disney World with my wife and two kids, and I remember seeing the news come over my phone. All I could say was, ‘Holy shit!’ Then I saw a guy nearby wearing a U.S. soccer jersey, and I went over to talk to him, and all he could say was ‘Holy shit!’ Then a bunch of friends started texting me — even my friends who aren’t that into soccer, who commented on how hard it was. But like I told them, American soccer’s never going to advance until we can get out of a group like this.”
Meixner, in addition to being a fan of the U.S. and Aston Villa, is part of the crew responsible for “From the Factory Floor,” the official podcast of Football Factory, one of two bars that made E. 33rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues — right across the street from the Empire State Building — the epicenter of New York City soccer-watching on Thursday. As the noon kickoff of U.S.-Germany approached, the bar began to fill with American fans, who clustered in around the bar’s multiple TVs. Six German fans gathered along one wall, watching a TV that American fans were clearly avoiding — giving them a wide berth as if rooting for Germany was contagious.
Down the street at Jack Demsey’s, the official watch bar for the New York chapter of American Outlaws, fans predictably arrived as early as 8 a.m. and packed into the bar’s two levels. Football Factory (in the lower level of the Legends bar, also accumulating a crowd) was capping its numbers due to some mayhem during the U.S.-Portugal match. Two signed soccer jerseys were stolen from the walls, though a painting of Alexi Lalas wearing the ’94 Denim Kit signed by Lalas himself remained untouched. “I can’t believe they didn’t take that; that’s the first thing I’d take,” said Sheilah Villari, a 28-year-old Manchester United fan who comes to Football Factory so often (and is so hilarious) that she’s been pulled into helping host the podcast several times a month.
The game itself began with expectation and hope, then grew more and more tense as the concurrent and crucial Portugal-Ghana clash also remained parked at 0–0. Of course, that scenario was a pleasing one for Americans, whose team would advance with a draw in either match. But even though rain-soaked Recife provided the setting for something low-scoring, it was a much different case for Portugal and Ghana, who both needed to win and were playing on a sun-dappled fast track. It’s ironic but not terribly surprising that the lustiest in-game cheers for American fans at Football Factory came from the Cristiano Ronaldo game-winner with less than 10 minutes to go in both games.
The lone Germany goal, coming as it did in the second half, created a held-breath quality for the crowd, a collective feeling of, “We’re okay as long as we can keep the wheels from coming off and Ghana doesn’t morph into France or the Netherlands.” The Ronaldo goal came on a slapstick sequence showing why, if you’re a goalie, you shouldn’t bat a loose ball into the path of the best soccer player in the world. Before ESPN showed the replay on its telecast of the U.S.-Germany, the Football Factory crowd saw it in real time on the few screens monitoring the second match. In short, American fans cheered for a player who did quite a bit to cruelly defer their dreams four days earlier, and the countdown was on for celebrating the most wonderful 1–0 loss in U.S. soccer history.
Would it have been better to win or even tie? To win the group? To be slotted against Algeria in the Round of 16 rather than Belgium? Undoubtedly. But in the moments following the game, there was a collective sense of validation and outlasting. In front of Jack Demsey’s on 33rd, the post-match crowd spilled out of the bar and onto the street, running through some of the standby American in-game cheers for the benefit of passers-by.
Beeta Fahini and Allanyire Lopez, a twentysomething couple visiting from Woodland Hills, Calif., wandered down from Football Factory for the post-game celebration. “This is nothing like I’ve seen in L.A.,” Fahini gushed. “It’s crazy, and on a different level — there are so many people coming here from different places, coming together to support the team.” Lopez was buoyed by the refreshed prospects for his online bet that the U.S. would win the World Cup, and proclaimed, “They’re going to win it all now!”
Jeffrey Lowe, a 23-year-old from Austin who’d personalized his U.S. jersey to read “Iceman” (for Aron Johannsson, not Tom Cruise’s Top Gun nemesis), watched at Jack Demsey’s and was clearly enjoying the celebration outside, though it was tempered. “I really wanted us to win today,” he said. “And what happened against Portugal still stings. But it’s a whole new tournament now.”
For 20 minutes, the party continued as motorists attempted to navigate around the mayhem. I high-fived a guy in a delivery truck who honked his approval at the cheering crowd. Back at Football Factory, the room had cleared out to leave just the die-hards readying to watching the final Group H matches an hour away, but the floor had a sticky post-match residue and the air still held some of the heat and sweat from the crowd. One of the screens above the bar played highlights of the ’86 World Cup, which is largely a highlight reel of Diego Maradona being awesome. Meixner was still there, not quite ready to commit to more soccer for the day, but not quite ready to leave either. He reflected back on the day last December, wondering how the team would respond, and wondering if he’d only be cashing in three sick days at his job to watch the U.S.’s 2014 World Cup campaign. He knew now he’d have at least a fourth, and maybe even a fifth, with a win over Belgium leading directly to the Argentina-Switzerland winner. He was visibly relieved, and clearly proud of his nation’s team: They had officially, in navigating this Group of Death, arrived.
Phil West (@philwest) is an Austin-based writer traveling around the U.S. and writing about this World Cup in preparation for a forthcoming book, We Want the World: Watching the World Cup Through American Eyes. Throughout the tournament, he’ll bring you along to share his viewing experiences.