I'm not sure what felt stranger—sitting in a bar at 9 AM or sitting in a bar with no cigarette smoke. Or maybe it was that I was sitting in a smoke-free Chicago bar at 9 AM to watch soccer.
The Globe Pub opened a couple years ago as a designated international soccer bar. The former Lyons Den at Irving, Lincoln, and Damen was bought by the owners of the soccer-centric Ginger's Ale House to expand their realm; they recently gave it a new facade and a purple paint job to make it look like a British public house. It's not far from my home, and I'd seen people staggering out before noon in full drunken victorious elation, standing on the corner in exotic soccer jerseys trying to hail a cab, and even lining up to get in at 9 or 10 AM for some exceptionally exciting match—allowing that there is such a thing as an exceptionally exciting soccer match.
Soccer is one thing, but who am I to argue with the appeal of catching a little beer buzz in the morning? So with five British Premier League matches set to take place live before noon CST on satellite TV last Saturday, I hit the Globe to see how the other half of the world lived (and drank). I sat down at the bar at nine, just before kickoff of the game between league-leading Arsenal and underdog Birmingham City, and ordered a Bloody Mary. Then I broke out my notebook, expecting it to fill up with colorful quotes from local soccer hooligans.
Instead what I observed was a roomful of almost exclusively male soccer aficionados who viewed the wide-screen TVs with the deliberate calm of golfers at the 19th hole watching Tiger Woods line up a putt at the Masters. Many wore red Arsenal scarves or jerseys or caps, and some spoke with accents that identified them as expatriates, but to a person they were soccer fans studying the game. And I'll be damned if there wasn't something to the game—and that's not just the Bloody Mary talking.
In the past I've been at my most eloquent on the dreariness of soccer. My in-box filled with irate e-mail from around the globe after one of my columns was posted on an international footballophile Web site. This game, however, was different—even from the World Cup. The British Premier League and the other top European leagues recruit and hire the best of the best from around the world, much as Major League Baseball plunders Latin America and Japan. At a glance these players were much more deft, fast, and talented than the bush-leaguers playing our Major League Soccer. And because these athletes spend the vast majority of their playing time with their league teams—the World Cup happens but once every four years—the playmaking is far more intricate than it is in the Cup. Watching the skilled Arsenal forwards or, later, the renowned Manchester United forwards attack—with quickly forming patterns full of touch passes, deflections, diversions, and shots either hooked or sliced—was like watching predatory animals in the wild instead of in a zoo.
The Arsenal game was on all the TVs in the room save two, but I looked over at one of those two just in time to see Chelsea's Juliano Belletti score on a lovely long shot from outside the box. He kicked the ball with little spin, and it knuckleballed into the upper right corner of the Tottenham net. On the other TV, Middlesbrough went up on a wild play, the ball hopping around in front of the Liverpool goal like spit on a griddle before Gary O'Neil headed a perfect pass to George Boateng, who kicked it in. And Arsenal was all over BC, though the only score of the first half was a cheapie—BC got called for tripping Eduardo da Silva in the box (the announcers felt he flopped), and Arsenal's Emmanuel Adebayor chipped in the penalty kick. All three games were 1-0 at intermission.
Chelsea scored again and went on to win. Liverpool came out more determined and, moments after a Middlesbrough player hit the far post with a wicked hook shot, the fine-featured Fernando Torres tied the game on a hook to the near post that went off the goalie's fingertips and caught the inside of the net. BC tied Arsenal on a corner kick headed in by Garry O'Connor. From there it became the sort of game soccer aficionados are always raving about but I had never seen. Arsenal had all the play but BC clamped down on defense. BC goalie Maik Taylor made a number of stunning saves—at one point he was knocked to the ground by a point-blank shot and caught the rebound while flat on his back. As the clock ticked toward 90 minutes and then into stoppage time, the Arsenal fans at the Globe grew more agitated. "Hit it!" shouted one. "Shoot it!" yelled another. A ball rolled through the BC goalie box—nobody there to tip it in. "Ohhh!" everyone shouted.
In the end, despite being outshot 17-2, Birmingham held on for the 1-1 tie. Liverpool earned a tie, too. So I settled in, moving on to a Trumer Pils—which proved a nice, light, yeasty breakfast beer—and an order of chips and curry while I awaited Manchester United.
Led by the relentless Wayne Rooney, Man U attacked Newcastle United through the first half but was held scoreless. A group of Irishmen moved in at the end of the bar and offered an unsparing critique. Man U's Cristiano Ronaldo, whose eyebrows seemed to have been plucked by Keira Knightley's beautician, went down in the box trying to draw a foul. "Aha!" said one of the Irish. "Yer fooked. Turn that shit out. Yer a cheatin' bastard." Ronaldo scored early in the second half, and his teammate Carlos Tevez added a cheapie when the goalie's clearing pass bounced to him off the thigh of a Newcastle defender. Tevez ran to the sideline, pulled a pacifier from his shorts, and stuck it in his mouth. "Wotta fockin' idjiot," said one of the Irish. Yet when Ronaldo scored another on a pass from Tevez, controlling the pass with the tip of his toe and then booting it past the goalie, they couldn't control their admiration. "That was fookin' brilliant," said one. Man U went on to win 6-0, a blowout to appease American fans who bitch about how nobody ever scores in soccer. It was like the finale of a fireworks display.
The Irishmen flirted with the bartender after discovering she was from Bondi, outside Sydney, Australia. "You guys are sweet," she said, deflecting the attention. It was the defensive play of the day.
I've always insisted that all sport, like all politics, is local. But maybe in the satellite TV age all sport, like all politics, is global.
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