In the summer of 2002, no one thought that anyone cared about the World Cup. Of soccer or footie if you prefer. I myself cared about it deeply and have always been a huge fan. Screw baseball, basketball, hockey…pretty much every other sport. The World Series shouldn’t be called the World Series if they don’t play teams from around the world. The World Cup is the largest sports event in the world, larger than the Olympics. When you consider a country like Ghana cut production at their gold mines in half by the government so that there would be enough electricity to power the nation's television sets to watch Ghana in the World Cup. Think that happens during the Olympics? Not hardly.
The World Cup in 2002 happened to be in South Korea which is fantastic, but the time zone difference made it difficult at best to watch it here in NYC, yet it seemed everyone was into it. I found myself, like others I knew, taking “World Cup Naps” between 7-11 at night and waking in order to head over to the many, and by many I mean every, bar that was staying open all night and serving beer illegally past the 4am cut off for the games. Games started at midnight, 3 am, 5 am, and 9 am I believe. Needless to say it was an interesting month.
I was in Nevada Smiths with a bunch of Brits that I am friends with getting ready to watch England play Argentina. There was a lot of tension in the bar and the Argentines and Brits were not mixing all that well even though there were 3-1 Brit fans for every Argentine. Karaoke was going on, as it does some nights at that bar and the first game had yet to begin. The last performer of the night got up to sing about 5 minutes before the game began. He was a big bloke, probably a bit of hooligan in his native country. Then he began to sing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and I feared that ugliness would ensue. All the Brits joined in and the Argentines just kept quiet realizing how outnumbered they were. They then lost to England and it was a fantastic night.
My best night started out at an English pub in my neighborhood when England played Brazil. They were the first game of the night; the US was the last with their game scheduled at 9 am. We are settling in at the pub at midnight when we notice a tiny famous man in the bar with us wearing an extremely loud Hawaiian shirt and hitting on all the Brazilian ladies. Matt Dillon. When the England fans noticed him they changed their chant from “England” to “Dillon” and shook beer all over him. He quickly grabbed two ladies and exited quickly. England lost that game but we stayed late and had an amazing time. Later we were debating how to spend the time between the games. We decided to grab some beer and head to my place to play some Xbox to keep ourselves awake for the the couple hour interval.
We found ourselves somehow scoring a 12 pack of cheap canned beer and then heading up the street to my place. The sun was rising and everything was nice and blue with that wonderful early morning light. As we came upon Tompkins Square Park we heard some noise where there shouldn’t be any. We looked over and in the park (which was closed from midnight or so until about 7 am) there were a bunch of guys playing soccer. We watched a moment and then the 5 of us hopped the fence and went over and asked if we could play. Before you knew it my shirt and was off and we were divided evenly among the teams playing good old Shirts v. Skins.
As we started to play (illegally) in the park you could see grins creeping up and pasting themselves on everyone’s faces. Here we were, a bunch of guys in their late 20’s to mid-30’s suddenly playing a pick up game of soccer at 5-6 am in the sunrise. It was as if we were all suddenly 12 again playing a pick up game, running and almost skinning our knees on the pavement. There was a score but no one knew what it was.
Soon a police car rolled up and we paused for a second wondering what to do.
Then we knew.
We kept playing.
The cops just watched, either enjoying the game or entertained by the sight of a bunch of guys playing soccer and sweating out their beer from the night before.
Eventually a ball went astray and ended up wedging itself under the cop car. I ran up to retrieve it, figuring they hadn’t bugged us yet so what’s going to happen?
I got the ball and the smiled at the cops and they smiled back. I guess since we were obviously not doing anything wrong, why bust us for anything?
We ended up playing as the sun rose and until the park opened. Then we all headed out and when we got to my place, most people opened a beer and passed out. I stayed awake and watched the US win.
It remains one of my happiest most free feeling moments in this city. In the middle of a drunken night of fun, coming across a random game and playing and losing yourself in the moment, so swept up in the fever of the World Cup and the love of the game and the memories of it as a child.
When I think of my happiest moments in this city, that moment of walking by the game and discovering the game and then joining and playing is in the top 5. There is just something so pure about the game and our discovery and playing. I mean the circumstances we came from weren’t, but the outcome was. I think it was the randomness of it all and the ineffable feeling of playing a game that you love deeply, but also of playing the game, as if you are the child you once were.