A perfect, blended crowd at the Ghana/USA match

The Match: Ghana v. USA

The Date: Monday, June 16

The Venue: Harlem Tavern at the corner of 116th St. and 8th Ave. in Harlem, Manhattan

Harlem Tavern
Harlem Tavern before the Ghana v. USA match on June 16, 2014

I work in Harlem, just a few blocks away from Harlem Tavern, but I had never been inside until Monday’s match between the USA and Ghana. Harlem Tavern is located on West 116th St., a portion of Harlem referred to as Le Petit Senegal because almost all the businesses and restaurants between Lenox Ave. and 8th Ave. are West African.  This isn’t like “Little Brazil,” with only three Brazilian restaurants and one small shop.

My coworker-friend Emily and I went to Harlem Tavern around 5:15 and met up with my buddy Jon. It was pretty much standing room only when we got inside, but I noticed a countertop table near the bar. There was a small card atop the table indicating it was reserved, but a waitress said we could hang out at the table until the party arrived.

A few minutes later, the party arrived. They were eight young Ghanaians in cool Ghana kits and t-shirts! Soon more Ghanaian fans filtered in around us. A few women showed up with Ghana jerseys painted on their lean bodies.  The older couple in front of us wore nylon shirts emblazoned with the logo “#TeamAfrica.”

On the one hand, I thought this was pretty cool — there would be plenty of friendly competitive banter between our two cheering sections and the energy would be incredible. On the other hand, I was anxious well before the match started and I wanted to commiserate with the majority of the people around me if things went sour for the USA. I did not want to suffer the opponents’ joyful screams every time the USA screwed up.

So here is what happened:

Watching the USA beat Ghana 2-1 on two unlikely goals while immersed in a crowd equal parts Ghana fans and USA fans was possibly the best experience I have ever had in a bar.

Furthermore, Harlem Tavern was the most ethnically diverse place I have ever been to. It was like a shelf of a P.C. public school textbooks come to life.

Inside Harlem Tavern
Inside Harlem Tavern during the Ghana v. USA World Cup match in 2014. Diversity!

There were several  televisions, including a projector screen behind the bar, right in front of where we stood.  Drinks were expensive and the happy hour was lame ($5 Bud Lights – Psht), but the staff were friendly and most of the servers wore USA jerseys. Thanks to the two groups of supporters, the bar stayed loud during most of the game.

I was definitely one of the fans keeping it loud. My eyes watered and I severed my vocal cords screaming after Clint Dempsey’s goal 30 seconds into the match. I shrieked so deliriously, the guy in front of me pointed and laughed. But I wasn’t alone. The bar was rocking.

When the camera focused on Joe Biden sitting in the stands, the bar erupted again. Clever plays by both sides were met with loud approval.

At halftime, with the score 1-0 USA, I polled the Ghanaians around us. “How are you feeling?” I asked, trying not sound like I was mocking them. I was curious because their team was clearly outplaying the USA.

All ten people told me they were mad.

“I’m so angry!” Martín, a woman in a skin-tight jersey, yelled. “I’m waiting for Boateng to come in.”

Boateng as in Kevin Prince Boateng, a star midfielder who played for AC Milan before he joined Schalke. I then realized that Ghana still hadn’t inserted Michael Essien, the country’s greatest player of all time. Sure, Essien is getting older, but he and Boateng are two nice subs to introduce with the USA clinging to a 1-0 lead and playing a conservative, defensive game.

I nervously gnawed my nails and texted my brother Mike a stream of gloom.

“This is Atletico holding on all over again,” I wrote, referring to Atletico Madrid’s crushing loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final last month. In that game, Atletico also clung to a 1-0 lead until Sergio Ramos headed in the equalizer in the 93rd minute of the match. Atletico ended up losing 4-1 in Extra Time.

“I have PTSD,” I texted a friend. “My little heart can’t take this.”

The Ghana fans’ energy seemed to increase as the second half dragged on. Boateng entered the game. Cheers. Essien came on. Applause. Asamoah Gyan, my bro, nodded a series of headers closer and closer to the Americans’ net. Gasps.

Finally, Gyan flicked a back heel to André Ayew who blasted Ghana’s inevitable equalizer past Tim Howard. The roof exploded.

The Ghanaians celebrated and the Americans deflated.  Moments later, when the Ghana cheers subsided a bit, something awesome happened: the American supporters rallied. I played my part by shouting YEAH ZUSI!!!!!! YEAH CLINT!!!!! every five seconds.

AND THEN JOHN BROOKS HEADED IN THE GAME-WINNING GOAL!!!

I squeezed Emily then squeezed Jon and screamed and screamed. Then I high-fived the American strangers around us, then the bartenders, then Jon’s roommates and then I texted my brother, my girlfriend, my parents, my friends.

On the subway home, I quickly tapped this note into my phone:

Don’t ever forget this game. Don’t ever forget that second goal by john brooks and who the fuck is john brooks!? But just don’t forget how you felt then.

Yeah, that’s pretty melodramatic, but the point is that Harlem Tavern was the perfect place to watch this incredible World Cup match. The back-and-forth between the Ghana and USA supporters made the experience more dynamic and memorable. Of course, the wonderful match result, a 2-1 USA victory, helped.

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 9.5/10. I just don’t imagine any other venue approaching this level of energy and excitement. I can’t wait to see!

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