“That’s football” : Philosophy among the Ivorians.

The Match: Greece v Cote d’Ivoire

The Date: Tuesday, June 24

The Venue: New Ivoire in East Harlem

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New Ivoire restaurant in East Harlem the day of Cote d’Ivoire’s match with Greece in the 2014 World Cup

“That’s football,” a cabdriver named Cain told me after Cote d’Ivoire lost to Greece on a penalty kick in the 93′. Cain approached me on the street outside New Ivoire restaurant and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what happens in this game. Now we root for USA.”

Yeah, but that was a pretty awful way to lose, I prodded.

“That’s the way the game goes,” he responded.

I couldn’t believe how calm and philosophical he was after that heartbreaking loss, especially since the Ivorian crowd seemed incredulous for the previous two hours. After every Ivorian mistake, every give-away, every cross that didn’t find a green kit in the box, the pack of men at New Ivoire Restaurant whined like they were personally offended. At halftime, one guy in a gray pin-stripe suit got into an impassioned argument with another guy wearing a pink button-down and slacks. They pointed into each other’s chests and their staccato French sounded like throaty morse code.

I asked the guy behind me what they were saying. “Oh they just disagree about the match,” he responded cooly.

New Ivoire is a small orange container with mirrors hung at face-level along the wall. When I arrived during the national anthems, I stood with my butt touching the front door, my view obstructed by several bald heads. If I were Yaya Toure, I probably wouldn’t have fit in the restaurant. Seriously, has anyone else noticed how big Toure’s ass is whenever the camera focuses on him taking a corner kick? Dude’s got a donkey.

I am no Yaya Toure, however, and after a few minutes, Ivorians ushered me into the middle of the crowd, next to a small counter where a congenial woman in a red bandana and lacy blouse served tea and espresso. The TV was attached to the wall opposite the door and about 900 wires attached it to a stack of five cable boxes teetering on a shelf near the ceiling. There were four rows of tables crammed with anxious West Africans. A few interested white people sat in the front. The crowd rumbled throughout the match and their pleas filled the humid box. Non-Ivorians near the TV occasionally turned to chuckle and photograph the outspoken fans behind them.

Les Elephants, the Cote d’Ivoire soccer team’s nickname, appeal to people from all countries. Their captain Didier Drogba is an icon, they have stars playing throughout Europe and the team has helped heal a divided nation. I stood near a guy named Jonah who was Swiss and wore an old, striped Cote d’Ivoire jersey. Jonah fit in by providing his own anguished French analysis throughout the second half.

Cote d’Ivoire was trapped in the Group of Death for two consecutive World Cups. Both times, they finished third in the group.  This tournament, they finally got into an easier group matched up against Japan, Greece and Colombia. It seemed like 2014 was the Ivorian’s best chance to move on to the Round of 16. All they needed was a draw with Greece yesterday. Yet, the crowd at New Ivoire seemed to expect Les Elephants to blow this match.

There were a few moments of levity, however. Just before the Ivory Coast’s only goal, two guys standing by the TV loosened up and mugged for a cameraman. They started jumping and yelling and within 15 seconds, Wilfried Bony scored to tie the game for Les Elephants. Maybe they saw something I didn’t see in the build up to that goal, but their celebration was weirdly (and uncharacteristically) optimistic. A few minutes later, Cote d’Ivoire substituted for Didier Drogba and the New Ivoire crowd applauded as Drogba trotted off the field.

Unfortunately, the life literally left the room when the referee awarded Greece a penalty kick in the 92′.  Most of the men around me silently marched out of the restaurant en masse before Greece even put the ball down. They already knew what would happen.

I stuck around to watch Greece sink the penalty. When I left New Ivoire, I met Cain and was struck by his realism. I was crushed when Portugal tied the USA on Sunday and that was nothing compared to Cote d’Ivoire’s defeat. I want Cain to be my next Uber driver and life coach.

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A portion of the crowd at New Ivoire restaurant in East Harlem during Cote d’Ivoire’s match with Greece.

One final note: The few people who ordered meals during the match received the largest servings of food I have ever seen. One loaded pile of plantains and white rice looked like a challenge on Man vs. Food.

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 8/10 in New Ivoire because the fans were passionate and the staff were generous. I took a card that says New Ivoire is open 24/7. I imagine that they cater to the West African cab driver set who probably need a place to convene and feel welcome at 3 am when their shifts end and they drop off their last drunk Wall Street finance guy at his Upper East Side penthouse.

These fans were way more interesting and invested in the game than the crowd at Athens Cafe, where I watched Greece last week.


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