World Cup Across America: D.C.

The Brazil-Colombia Quarterfinal promises to be epic, not only for the play between the World Cup favorites and tournament darlings, but for what their fans will bring

Story by Phil West | Photograph by Amy Kauffman


[I] can’t understand what’s being joyously yelled around me, so Pilar Ortiz, an animated 52-year-old Colombia native who’s leaning into me like an affectionate relative, translates. “This cheer means, ‘Colombia, we are the better,’” she says, helping me hear over the din. And it’s an impressive din. We’re at a bar called Dirty Martini, next to an actual soccer bar called Lucky Bar, which the doormen stopped letting people into shortly after kickoff of Saturday’s Columbia-Uruguay match. At the moment Pilar is translating for me, both bars are packed with Colombian fans, James Rodriguez has just scored his second of two brilliant goals, and we’re about a half-hour from an epic celebration. She tells me there’s a new generation of young Colombians, most of them still in or fresh out of college, that’s joining her generation of immigrants to turn D.C. bright yellow. They’re doing an amazing job — there are close to 1,000 Colombian fans in this two-level club, louder than any I’ve heard on my entire trip around the country — and after the game, they’ll be taking their canary-jerseyed selves to seemingly every landmark in the city, representing almost as well as American fans on game days.

There are no Uruguay supporters here, which is great, because the scenes during and after the game would just depress them. In the latter stages, as each Uruguay attack is repelled, the crowd chants “Ospina! Ospina!” for goalkeeper David Ospina, who deftly denies an Edinson Cavani shot in the 84th minute. Someone’s making profligate use of an airhorn. As fun as it is to watch this Colombian team — the revelation of this tournament — it’s more fun to watch the fans here afterward. Pilar hugs me and then hugs everyone else she can find. The DJs pump a cumbia version of “Colombia Tierra Querida” over the club’s sound system that gets the entire room dancing. A bartender keeps time with a pair of percussion sticks as asses shake and flags wave. A for-real conga line starts up, and several minutes later, maracas enter the picture. Fans clearly want to stick around, and those who do meander out and find their way into a sidewalk crowd, the merging of both bars’ patrons into a flag-waving cool-down from the celebrations inside, with the growing realization that they’re going to have to get up again for a major showdown against Brazil on Friday.

Brazil, of course, is lucky to be part of that equation — something not lost on the fans I met earlier in the day as they fretfully watched their beloved team outlast Chile in penalty kicks. “When it comes to Brazil, I have no sympathy for the other teams playing them,” says Dete Vieira, a 53-year-old D.C. resident whose 26-year-old son, Daniel Albuquerque, is visiting from New York. They’ve gathered at a Brazilian restaurant in the capital’s Adams Morgan neighborhood with a name so awful it’s great — The Grill from Ipanema — and like the vast majority of the 300 fans packed into the restaurant’s three rooms, they’re wearing yellow and looking nervous. Dete’s here because the owners of the restaurant are friendly, because grilling meat and drinking is almost as essential to the soccer-watching experience as a TV, and because Brazilians congregate here.

One couple, Ted and Val Nolan, arrived at 11 a.m. to grab the table closest to the largest TV. Ted and Val met in 2003 when Val came to the U.S. from Brazil to study English. Ted is a Netherlands fan — he says his mom is Dutch and declares “I wore orange as a kid!” — but even if he hadn’t been cheering for Brazil, Val is emotive enough to handle the job for the both of them. Like Dete, Val’s here for the communal experience; as she puts it, “It’s too boring to watch other places.” Despite the animated chatter and the caipirinha drinking and the bustle of waiters running plates of food to the tables, focus is firmly on the game. When the DirectTV signal goes out halfway through the second half, the crowd’s collective horror nearly equals what they express during Chile’s equalizer. The shrill screams during the final minutes signal a higher-than-high alert level, though one cherubic toddler sleeps in his father’s arms amidst the swirl of noise.

As the teams prepare for penalty kicks, I pass by Val and ask how she’s doing, and she makes a hand motion to suggest her heart is spilling out. She’s tense, hopeful and thrilled all at once. It’s a testament to the closeness of the match, or perhaps each team’s inability to put it away, that Chile’s first two penalty takers dump their first two shots directly into Julio Cesar and yet, the teams still go to their fifth members to decide the outcome. Neymar’s conversion buys some seconds of respite, and when Gonzalo Jara’s response hits the post and Brazil’s bench empties onto the field in celebration, it sets off a chain reaction throughout the restaurant — cheers, hugs, and a brief pause to make sure normal heartbeats and breathing patterns would resume.

While not containing the mirth and motion and pumping bass of Colombia’s celebration, it’s clear that the fans at the Grill — the Brazilians, those married to Brazilians, and those merely drawn to their style of soccer — are live-and-die passionate about their team. In a way, it’s a shame these teams won’t be on a collision course for the final. Friday promises to be epic, not only for the play between the World Cup favorites and World Cup darlings, but for what their fans will bring. Anyone hosting a Brazilian or Colombian watch party should have a defibrillator handy; it may just come to that.

Howler

Phil West (@philwest) is an Austin-based writer travelling 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.