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Global Soccer, Global NYC

Soccer in NYC Reimagined Through the Rivalries, Identity, Migration, and Politics of the World's Game in the Preeminent Global City

Africa Cup of Nations. Côte d’Ivoire  3 – Tunisia 0

26 January 2013, 10:00 am. New Ivoire Restaurant, Harlem 

Acting on a tip from an Ivorian diplomat on the best location to watch Les Éléphants play in NYC, we headed up to Harlem to catch the Côte d’Ivoire–Tunisia match early Saturday morning. New Ivoire is a 17-year-old, 24-hour restaurant on 119th street in a growing West African area of Harlem that is both frequented and owned by Ivorian taxi drivers. It has also been the de facto headquarters of Ivorian fans cheering on their team during this year’s Africa Cup of Nations.

We sat by the back next to the owner and enjoyed coffees and teas with sweetened condensed milk, kidney and liver beef sandwiches, and toasted baguettes with butter alongside more than 50 very enthusiastic and captivated orange-clad Ivorian fans. Sadly, we were a bit too early to try their foutou banane, Côte d’Ivoire’s national dish, and the name of a popular coupé décalé dance.

Côte d’Ivoire scored first through a Gervinho strike twenty minutes in, sending the standing-room only crowd in Harlem into an absolute frenzy.

Tunisia later found their stride in the second half and threatened to level the score a few times during some crafty attacks that visibly frayed the Ivorians’ nerves.  Then, in the 87th minute, Yaya Toure drilled home a second for Les Éléphants that instantly changed the mood at New Ivoire from cataclysmic nervousness to joyous ecstasy. The patrons jumped out of their seats, sang, danced, cheered, and embraced each other knowing victory was theirs

Didier Ya Konan’s neat finish inside the box three minutes later gave Côte d’Ivoire their icing-on-the-cake third goal and the crowd in Harlem even more reasons to celebrate their assured progression to the next round of the very tournament that their golden generation of players has perpetually come up short at.

As the final whistle blew, the wait staff, cooks, and patrons continued to sing and dance as we thanked them for their hospitality and exited the warm and welcoming uptown Ivorian experience back into the frozen New York City air.

Cross-posted to Africa is a Country

Ivorian fans in Harlem celebrate Gervinho’s opener against Tunisia in the Africa Cup of Nations.

Ivorian fans watch the Africa Cup of Nations at New Ivoire Restaurant in Harlem. 

Ivorian fans watch the Africa Cup of Nations at New Ivoire Restaurant in Harlem. 

"Because of its popularity both in Africa and abroad, and because it represents one of the few forums through which Africans from impoverished and disempowered backgrounds can gain notoriety – and thus a voice in social discourse – football is an ideal spectacle for the expression of opposition to both African political corruption and the foreign imperial influence that upholds it."
- Alexander Nelson, World Cup Fever, Nationalism, and the Ambiguous Alliance of Nation-States and Transnational Corporations 

Africa Cup of Nations. South Africa 0 – Cape Verde 0

19 January 2013, 11:00 am. Madiba, Fort Greene Brooklyn

The opening match for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations kicked off on Saturday between tournament hosts South Africa and Cup debutantes Cape Verde in a conspicuously empty Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg and resulted in a largely uninspired and forgettable 0-0 draw.

Meanwhile in Fort Greene, where Madiba, New York City’s most popular South African restaurant is located, we were sadly the only two fans present with hopes of watching the match early Saturday morning. The outing also suffered from technical difficulties from the get go. After giving us assurances over the phone that the game would be shown, when we arrived NBA highlights were on a small TV screen and a waitress claimed to not be aware of any South African soccer being played. Following a bit of back and forth with the friendly staff, they said they would try to get an internet stream of the action up on a projector screen that was pulled down over a wall of various South African imported groceries.

Despite the sustained, yet-not-particularly-troubled, efforts of two waitresses, a manager, and a cook, the audio/video issues ultimately rendered viewing the game on the projector moot. We accepted projector defeat and were then handed a laptop with an unfortunate glare problem and a slow internet connection to catch the last twenty minutes of the first half as we finished our tasty egg and boerewors sausage breakfasts.

On the pitch, South Africa looked flat throughout the game and was unable to keep possession in front of the omnipresent vuvuzela drone of the home fans. Bafana Bafana’s attempt to win their first Africa Cup of Nations match since 2004 was also visibly affected by the “retirement” of their best player,Steven Pienaar, “at home in Liverpool.”

Cape Verde, on the other hand, looked energetic, skillful, and dangerous down the flanks despite only having a population of 500,000 people to draw their national side from. They even posses a diminutive striker named Platini who showed flashes of self-assured brilliance.

After having enough with the ongoing technical difficulties and lack of South African fans at Madiba, we ended up relocating to the private residence of a local South African to catch most of the second half in a livelier environment. We are confident, however, that watching Afcon in NYC alongside interested fans will get more dynamic as the tournament goes on and we explore different neighborhoods around the city.

Cross-posted to Africa is a Country

Derby of Eternal Enemies. Olympiacos FC 2 - Panathinaikos FC 2

9 December 2012, 12:30 pm. Olympiacos FC Supporters Club NY, Astoria Queens

The incredibly heated Greek match pitting Olympiacos FC against Panathinaikos FC is also known as both the “Derby of the Eternal Enemies” or “The Mother of All Battles.” These descriptions are rather apt, especially considering some recent matches, and capture the enduring rivalry and the emotions wrapped up in it. The derby between the Red-Whites and the Greens is a social, cultural, and regional rivalry. Both of these teams are the two major clubs in Greece. Panathinaikos FC (PAO) was founded in 1908 and is located in the center of Athens. PAO is one of only two supporter-owned football clubs in Greece. They are considered the classic representative of the old upper class society of Athens.

Olympiacos FC, founded in 1925 and located in the port city of Piraeus, just outside central Athens, represents the working class citizens of the city. Olympiacos is the most successful club in Greek football history winning 39 league titles. Both fan bases hate each other whenever they meet regardless of if it is in Athens or in Astoria.

The Olympiacos FC Supporters club has been in New York for 16 years. Located on 30th Avenue in Astoria, Queens conveniently above the Acropolis Meat Market, the members only fan club has been central to the large community of Greek immigrants living in Astoria. It was filled on a recent Sunday afternoon for the Derby with Greek men drinking coffee and cheering on their team. The atmosphere was amazing and became even better after Olympiacos scored two first half goals after being one down to take a 2-1 lead before the break. Panathinaikos leveled in the 67th, but the draw didn’t dampen the mood too much among the Olympiacos fans as they sit comfortably at the top of the league and a massive 16 points ahead of their arch rival.   

At the Olympiacos supports club, after we assured them we were not undercover FBI agents, we even had the opportunity to sit in the VIP section that included a small office and one flat screen TV after being invited by George (the club’s main caretaker/one of the head honchos) and Alex (an avid supporter). A special thanks goes out to both of them for their gracious hospitality during the Derby of Eternal Enemies. 

"Panathinaikos (PAO to its friends, vasles— from Vaseline— to its foes) is not simply taken as the team of the city (a point of identification) but also as a point of distinction between bourgeois Athens and proletarian Piraeus and its team Olympiakos (Thrylos— legend— to its friends, gavroi— smelts— to its foes). This, of course, does not mean that there is a monolithic devotion of the citizens of the two cities to their respective teams. The devotion of an individual to a team many times is superseded by an alliance of a different order, always ad hoc and largely unclassifiable ."
- Neni Panourgia, Fragments of Death, Fables of Identity: An Athenian Anthropography
"The physical agility and unexpected “fakes” lauded by Brazilian commentators were descended directly from manifestations within popular music and folklore, whether the sway of the hips originating in carnival, the sinuous steps samba brought into being, or the dodges and feints that came from capoeira. In this way, the legitimacy of soccer in Brazilian culture supported itself on an already established element of national identity: astuteness and improvisation. Music gave soccer what modernist intellectuals had detected in it in the 1920s: namely, the criteria and the sources of brasilidade."

Bernardo Borges Buarque de Hollanda, In Praise of Improvisation in Brazilian Soccer: Modernism, Popular Music, and a Brasilidade of Sports

Clássico dos Milhões. Flamengo 1 - Vasco de Gama 1

27 November 2012, 5:00 pm. Villa Café Brazil Grill, Rio Market, Joe’s Pizzeria, and Copacabana Steakhouse, Astoria Queens

Astoria is home to the largest concentration of Brazilians in NYC and the Brazilian community is centered along 36th Avenue and 30th street, although it also dots a few other areas within Astoria and Long Island City.

Having seen other matches at Villa Café Brazil Grill in the past over tasty churrasco and Brahma beers, we didn’t foresee the possibility of the restaurant being filled to the brim not with Brazilians watching the Clássico dos Milhões, perhaps the most important derby match in Brazil, but instead dozens of middle-aged Brazilian women glued to a popular telenovela.

Skillful improvisation was needed and we proceeded to head west to Rio Market and Travel Agency in hopes of catching the match. Despite having a popular sit down cafe and offering a bevy of imported Brazilian products, including nearly every kind of soccer accessory for all the main teams in the country, a TV and the elusive match were nowhere to be found. Apparently, the TV had been removed years ago because fans would sit all day and watch soccer matches and not buy anything. It apparently worked because, surprisingly, there were no Flamengo or Vasco fans in sight anywhere in the area.       

A customer at the market informed us that since the Campeonato Brasileiro had already been won by Fluminense, the Clássico dos Milhões between Rio de Janeiro’s two biggest teams was just not as important this year.

"Poor scheduling," he said disappointingly. Demographics of Brazilian migration to NYC are also changing as more young men are now staying in Brazil as their economy continues to grow, employment options increase, and the allure of an expanding middle class becomes more attractive than working menial jobs in Queens

As we left Rio Market disappointed and about to admit defeat, we walked by a seemingly nondescript pizza place, Joe’s, with no one inside except for two employees and a TV showing the Clássico dos Milhões. 

The match was sparsely attended in Rio but still featured the creativity, skill, improvisation, flair, and comical absence of tactical defending that often characterizes the Brazilian game. Vasco went up 1-0, but Flamengo equalized through a somewhat fortuitous Marcos Gonzales shoulder in the box in the dying minutes.

After the match ended, we drowned the sorrows of our fruitless search for Clássico dos Milhões fans in Astoria in the most delicious way possible: by-the-pound churrasco buffet and açaí juice from Copacabana Grill.

Who would have thought it would be so hard to find Brazilian soccer fans watching one of Brazilian soccer’s biggest matches in the largest Brazilian community in NYC?

International “Friendly.” Colombia 1 - Brazil 1

14 November 2012, 8 pm. MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford NJ

While not a domestic club rivalry, the recent ‘friendly’ match between the national teams of Colombia and Brazil took place at a fascinating juncture for both teams. Brazil, being Brazil, were tasked with both exercising the demons of the last time they played in the NYC area— a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to arch rivals Argentina in June— as well as building a squad of potential World Cup winners to satisfy the legendarily critical domestic audience on the road to hosting the 2014 World Cup. Colombia, on the other hand, was playing their first friendly match in NYC for years and was eager to demonstrate its soccer resurgence to the heavily Colombian crowd.

Perhaps as a result of public transportation issues still affecting the region following hurricane Sandy in addition to the freezing November temperatures, MetLife Stadium’s attendance for the night only hit 39,000. Still, the Colombian supporters section rocked with every touch, pass, and shot for 90 minutes and dwarfed the noise of the outnumbered Brazilian fans at the match. Aided with smuggled into-the-stadium vuvuzelas, drums, and guacharacas, the multi-generational Colombian fans, many of whom made the pilgrimage to the stadium from Queens, relished the opportunity to cheer on their idols Falcao, James, Yepes, Guarín, and the others that comprise South America’s hottest and the world’s currently 8th ranked team.

"Following la seleccion was one of the earliest ways I began to learn about and celebrate my Colombian identity," said journalist and Colombia fan Monika Fabian. "So attending local friendlies are—and always have been—an extension of that pride. Take my mother, for instance, she’d never say "let’s go see la seleccion." She’d say "let’s go receive la seleccion." Just like you’d receive, or host, relatives. Because that’s kind of what they are as a symbol from home. And to root for Colombia at the stadium is to push the country forward chant by chant." 

On the pitch, Fiorentina midfielder Juan Guillermo Cuadrado struck first for Colombia right before the break. This was followed by an outstanding individual effort by Neymar to tie it up for Brazil in the 64th minute. With ten minutes left, Neymar had the seemingly-assured opportunity to complete his brace and win it for a Brazilian squad playing in their landmark 1,000th match. Instead, the talented forward hit one of the very worst penalty kicks ever and sent the ball far into the upper decks much to the relief and enjoyment of the Colombian fans. In the last ten minutes Colombia pressed forward, with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos even tweeting encouragement to Los Cafeteros, to no avail. 

The glaring Neymar miss and ensuing 1-1 result left the Colombian fans energized and enjoying the party atmosphere in the parking lot following the match. Most viewed the 1-1 draw over mighty Brazil as a de facto victory. For the dejected Brazil supporters, the opposite seemed true. 

Just a week after the match, Brazilian coach Mano Menezes was sacked by the Brazilian Football Federation as they try to do everything they can to ensure a Cup win on home soil in an attempt to vanquish the longstanding ghosts of the 1950 Maracanazo. Anything less than triumphantly hoisting the World Cup at the Maracanã in 2014 would not only be a failure, but a pronounced crisis of national identity. 

"The transnational cultural ties connecting migrants and their places of origin are as varied in form, content and reach as the class and ethnoracial composition of the migration population itself. …Soccer and music, are perhaps the most important ‘national’ symbols, which seem to cross class and regional lines. As one of our informants put it, ‘one of the few things that unite Colombians within and outside the country is soccer.’ Soccer in Colombia generates more followers and interest than almost any other expression of Colombian life."
- Luis Eduardo Guarnizo and Luz Marina Díaz, Transnational migration: a view from Colombia

Celebratory Colombian fans following Colombia’s 1-1 draw with Brazil at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on November 14th 2012. Most Colombians viewed the result against the five-time world champions as an emphatic victory and consistent with their country’s resurgent national narrative, both on and off the pitch.

Colombian fans cheer on a Los Cafeteros corner kick at Metlife Stadium against Brazil. 

Colombian fans cheer on a Los Cafeteros corner kick at Metlife Stadium against Brazil.