Postcards from the World Cup #8: Star-spangled sorrow with the Americans
Earlham Street Clubhouse
35 Earlham Street, London, WC2H 9LD
So far, stereotypes have fallen like dominoes during this year's thrilling, life-affirming, dizzying World Cup. The Germans as an unstoppable, ruthlessly efficient force? Nope, not after their nervy performance against Algeria. Brazil's easy-on-the-eye total football? Only Neymar delivering on that count. Luis Suarez as toothy, laughable pantomime villain destined to offend the world with his morally reprehensible actions? Oh, hang on…
Still, one of the biggest shocks of all has to be the Yoo Ess A's emergence as football fan epicentre of the world (though we're using the term "world" in the same way that Major League Baseball uses the term "World Series" i.e. in America only). Suddenly football – yes football, not soccer – is a serious issue transcending MLS and emerging as a nationwide interest.
Fan parks sprung up in major cities. President Obama was tuning into games. And Americans have finally cottoned on to the fact that Piers Morgan is only slightly more knowledgeable on The Beautiful Game than a hot dog wrapper blowing in the breeze.
This, then, is a thing of joy and misery in equal measure. Joy in the fact that, at last, a country comprising one of the most multicultural societies on the globe has finally come to love its national team. Misery because in all likelihood, they'll have more chance of winning a World Cup in the coming decades than England ever will.
That, at least, is the prevailing mood in the Earlham Street Clubhouse, Covent Garden – a basement bar serving fine American beers (and there are a lot of those, forget the watery, big-name brands that sponsor huge sporting events) and pizzas the size of basketball hoops. Inside the patrons have gone for it: gents in stars-and-stripes banners, girls with face paint... someone wearing a Stetson. Somehow, football just got goddamn serious, y'all.
But – and here in lies the tragedy – it's all too easy to take the mickey. Like the part-time spectators who turn up in their droves at pubs whenever England play, there are more than a handful of bozos here tonight. The kind that talk of "kickin' ass" and "cleats"; the ignorant critics; a frat party mood sweeps the bar as people drink pricey cocktails out of what look like giant flowerpots.
Talk about the passion, though. The real fans in here are as hyped as any nation Postcards... has drunk with during this World Cup. They stand to attention during the national anthems, hand on hearts, and when Tim Howard delivers one of the performances of the tournament to keep out a vibrant Belgium side throughout much of the game, the ES Clubhouse shows its appreciation.
Forget the roars of "Yoo-Es-A" (the scourge of countless sporting events from Olympics to Ryder Cups) and the birds being flipped towards the TV screen every time the ref makes an incorrect decision, this is the sight of a nation very much taking the great game to their star-spangled hearts.
Pain, no gain
Which is what makes the denouement of this second-round tussle so bloody bittersweet. Two Belgian goals in extra-time, twinned with a so-near-yet-so-far comeback (plus a couple of missed sitters and death-or-glory showings from Howard and Clint Dempsey thrown in for good measure), is as about as visceral as football gets. And God knows, anyone supporting England in recent decades will sympathise with the heart-bruising misery of near victory.
When the final nail is banged into a 2-1 defeat, the familiar blend of pain and pride is palpable. And that's when a certain realisation dawns on Postcards… possibly the reason certain quarters have been so quick to mock American football fans for their boorishness and ignorance in recent years is the fact that there's so much of those traits visible in our game.
You only have to look at an online football forum to conclude that the unhinged type among us every waking minute. For every "sportscaster's" mention of "overtime", there is a football commentator ignorant of the fact that Jackson Martinez plays for Colombia not Ecuador; for "Yoo-Ess-A", there is "Eng-er-land". The BBC have flown – flown – Robbie Savage to Brazil to be an "expert" on their otherwise enjoyable broadcasting package.
Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to criticise. People in glass houses, and all that…
Matt Allen is criss-crossing the captial in the line of duty. His aim? To find the best World Cup-themed parties in London. If you know of any, please tweet him, especially if you're having a BBQ.