By Ivy McNally
Jumping on bandwagons is one of my favorite hobbies (see: the time I celebrated the Giants' second World Series win by dancing on Polk Street, or the time I crawled out of bed to don a bottomless mimosa costume for Bay 2 Breakers, or the time I sipped on mint juleps at Golden Gate Fields to celebrate the Kentucky Derby). If a sporting event presents an opportunity to don a silly hat and drink themed cocktails, consider your bandwagon jumped on.
The World Cup, an international spectacle that happens once every four years, would certainly seem to fall right in my wheelhouse. Set in Brazil, the games are perfectly timed to coincide with brunch here on the West Coast, the colorful jerseys are sometimes festooned with adorable animals, and people watch the games with painted faces, sipping micheladas and Irish coffees in bars open well before noon. What's not to love?
And so it would seem that my deep abiding hatred of soccer was the only thing standing between me and a spectacular World Cup experience. Ann Coulter helpfully outlined the most common complaints about the game in a recent column I did not read (nice try, Ann). Besides all that, the games are terribly long, low-scoring and sometimes end in a draw. Without commercials interrupting the game every 90 seconds, there are very few opportunities to visit the restroom, smoke a cigarette, or play a round of QuizUp. You really have to pay full attention for the entire 90 minutes, plus the occasional extra 30, and what you are paying your full attention to is mostly a whole lot of running. I didn’t play soccer in my youth, and I have no fond memories of waking early to watch a match with my father. While past boyfriends have successfully tricked me into enjoying baseball, basketball, football, house music, Jim Jarmusch films and cooking, none have ever been particularly keen on soccer.
“This is the thing about the World Cup...” I was about to have some knowledge leveled upon me by Jeff Cleary, encyclopedic keeper of sports factoids. “Personally, I do not like the game itself, but I do like the enthusiasm it generates when you go to a bar and you’re surrounded by people who, especially in San Francisco, it’s like life or death for people from some countries. I love the enthusiasm, but as soon as the game starts I’m just like, snoozing.”
So maybe the key to enjoying the World Cup experience was to approach it as an emotional succubus that relishes the fervor of others.
I caught my first game at Danny Coyle’s, a bar somewhere between Ashbury and Valencia (that’s an outdated Sarah Slocum joke for you guys). It was a big match between Chile and Brazil, two countries I have never been to and know nothing about. Fortunately, I was joined by friend and spirit guide, Rose Kerbein, who has not only visited Brazil but actually once played a game of soccer! She gave me some bullet points to aid in my enjoyment of the game, which turned out to mostly be tabloid gossip about some of the prominent players and a few Spanish curse words.
I decided to root for the team the people sitting nearest to me were cheering for, a large group of fans decked out in red and draped in Chilean flags having a wonderful time and making me feel like a jerk for studying French in college instead of Spanish. They were so happy, they were even happy when their team lost. I gave one of the girls a there-there pat on the shoulder and she said, “Oh, I’m not disappointed at all! I’m so happy they even made it this far.” And then her friend hugged me. It was very un-American. They could have at least tipped over a car or something to express their frustration. Maybe Chileans are just very happy people. If so, that must be a great place to visit. Do they speak any French there?
Unfortunately for me, losing makes me sad. I’d been following this team’s underdog story for nearly two hours, and now had nothing to show for it.
Brunch usually cures all of my emotions, so I sauntered downhill to Dobbs Ferry in Hayes Valley to watch the Colombia v. Uruguay match. It was here that I met a person called a “Chief Brunch Officer,” whose job is to buy patrons Aperol spritzers. Similar marketing efforts were enacted two World Cups ago (I am now using World Cups as units of time) to cement Fernet’s popularity in San Francisco. Fernet is an Italian digestif that is also for some reason the national cocktail of Argentina, and at least 25% of its US consumption occurs within our fair city. If San Franciscans can buck national sentiment and learn to love Fernet, perhaps we can also learn to love soccer.
The following day, I joined Kimberle Konover, a social worker whose fond memories of living in Argentina drives her interest in what some commercials call "the beautiful game," to catch the Netherlands v. Mexico match at the Phoenix. “It's a way more fun sport to watch than baseball and pretty much allows me to embrace my ADHD and still know what's happening in the game,” she said. “I must like it a fair amount, because getting up before 9 a.m. on a Sunday is not normal behavior for me.”
Still, everyone I talked to agreed that interest in the World Cup would likely wane once the United States was eliminated, making their match against Belgium potentially my last good chance to catch World Cup fever. I started the day at Civic Center Plaza, where all the games are being screened for free. About 80 people were watching the Argentina/Switzerland game, and the smattering of Lionel Messi jerseys clued me in to who I should pretend to be rooting for. Far more of the fans were outfitted in America's red, white and blue, jockeying for a good spot to watch a game whose start time was still three hours away.
Of all the American fans, Valentin Huerta, Joshua Miramontes, Theo Joseph and Josh Tan were the most sensibly dressed, and I sensed they might possess the final piece of information I needed to solve my World Cup quandary. They played soccer at De La Salle High School, which just won its sixth consecutive North Coast Section Division I championship. Pretty legit. They disagreed with the notion that a US loss would temper their World Cup enthusiasm. “In some countries, it’s really like a religion. People skip church to watch the games.”
On this day, plenty of people skipped work to watch the game. I joined my colleagues at Mars Bar. US goalkeeper Tim Howard turned in a truly impressive performance with 16 saves, setting a new FIFA record. Meanwhile, I set a new record for number of soccer games watched in my entire lifetime. But with a 2-1 loss for the US, my World Cup odyssey came to an end.
As I writing this dispatch, I received an e-mail from Molly Keane, the only person I know who earnestly follows and plays soccer year-round. “World Cup mania!!!” she wrote. “Best place to watch is Maggie McGarry’s followed by Kezar and Mad Dog in the Fog and Danny Coyles! I haven't been in town for a weekend yet and it's killing me not to be able to watch in SF! There will be a great crowd at Maggie's Friday at 9 for France vs Germany!!!!”
Now that is a lot of exclamation points and everyone knows that exclamation points equal enthusiasm, the very thing that fuels my World Cup bandwagon. With over a week of games scheduled ahead, perhaps it wasn’t too late to learn to love this so-called beautiful game.
But alas, it was not meant to be. The next match ups fell on the 4th of July, the most American of holidays. Instead of watching Germany tromp France (insert WWII joke here; everybody else on Twitter did), my comrades were engrossed in the most American of sports -- Nathan’s Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest. While it is certainly more repulsive than any sporting event could be, blessedly, it only lasts 10 minutes.
The next time I heard of the World Cup was news of Brazil's shocking loss to Germany with a final score of 7 to 1. Even the most complacent office drones couldn’t help but express their surprise via Twitter and Facebook. My timelines and newsfeeds were inundated with photos of Brazil fans weeping. This is sad. Hopping on a bandwagon is supposed to make me happy.
Wednesday’s game between Argentina and the Netherlands was a bit of a dud by all accounts, closing with a draw but somehow catapulting Argentina into the final round against Germany. How this all works is completely beyond me, and I suspect probably has something to do with math, my born enemy.
Speaking of math, did you know that the World Cup has cash prizes? I didn’t! To find out who will land in third place and take home $22 million, don’t miss Brazil v. the Netherlands, scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday. And Sunday at noon, we’re down to Germany and Argentina for the big finale. Who will take home $35 million and a trophy that oddly looks nothing at all like a cup? Any of the bars noted in this piece would be more than happy to fix you a bloody mary while you find out!
And once you’re forced off this bandwagon, don’t fret -- it’s still baseball season.