Match Day 1
The Match: Russia v. Saudi Arabia
The Score: 5-0
The Venue: The streets of Downtown Brooklyn; Circa Brewing Co.
The Vibe: Wistful
Russia getting matched up with Saudi Arabia in the 2018 World Cup Opener felt like how an athletic director will schedule the Homecoming Game against a rural vocational school that just fielded its first ever varsity team. You have to give the home crowd a feel good performance and a convincing win, even if it bores the hell out of everyone else.
You could tell the game was joke even before Saudi Arabia left two Russian players wide open at the back post in the 12th minute. Saudi Arabia isn’t very good.
But the 2018 World Cup Tour of NYC isn’t about the action on the field, it’s about the action everywhere else. The Tour focuses on who’s watching it the game — and who’s not.
I had a noon deadline this morning so at halftime I left my office to get lunch and mingle with the diehard soccer fans who will unfortunately miss out on the tournament: the Downtown Brooklyn halal cart cooks and fruit vendors.
Borough Hall is the nucleus of a Downtown Brooklyn cell that pulses at lunchtime. The halal trucks that sizzling with turmeric and coriander are the mitochondria — the powerhouses fueling the cell.
From 9 to 5, men cook beside stainless steel ranges or labor in their confined mobile kitchens in order to feed folks falafel, gyros and chicken over rice. There are no breaks.
The fruit vendors hail from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America and never really get to rest either. Sure they all have big umbrellas —invariably branded with the logo of some Medicaid Managed Plan — but they never get to stand under them. That’s because they constantly move about their cart like a sailor fortifying his dinghy in a storm. They organize fruit, pour chestnuts into bags, dispense change to four people at once.
The business demands constant attention and commitment. It’s a tough life. The halal guys have to buy their meat and spices at a premium and the fruit vendors have to go to the Hunts Point Produce Market every morning to pick out the produce before they set up shop. Unsold fruit is wasted money.
And so watching a mid-day soccer match, even the World Cup opener, is the ultimate luxury.
Mina, who is from Egypt, shared his cart kitchen with Freddy, from Mexico. They station themselves in Columbus Park near Court Street and seem to recall each of their customer’s orders. Freddy, who doesn’t care for sports, filled in for Mina’s regular partner, who is on vacation in Egypt.
“He’s lucky,” Mina said. “He’s probably watching the World Cup with his family. He’s going to watch the game tomorrow.”
On the other side of the plaza, near Shake Shack, Dey handed banana bunches and bags of cherries to impatient customers.
During the short breaks, he told me about World Cup Fever in Bangladesh, where the intense Brazil-Argentina rivalry divides soccer fans.
“The World Cup is a big festival in my country,” Dey said. “There are Brazil and Argentina flags everywhere, all down the line of the street.”
Dey said he supports Argentina because he grew up watching Maradona. The rivalry, he added, can be dangerous.
“The number of strokes and heart attacks go way up during the World Cup,” he said. “People are having heart attacks watching these games.”
Seems like Bangladesh could teach the US how to appreciate he World Cup even when your own country crashes out in qualifiers.
After canvassing vendors, I eventually found a bar draped with the familiar string of international flags that signal “World Cup Here.” About 12 people were watcingh Russia dismantle Saudi Arabia at Circa Brewing Co. on Lawrence Street. I spotted a guy in a light blue Manchester City shirt and approached him and his wife just as the waitress delivered their Hawaiian pizza.
Kyle and Kate arrived from London last night and, for some reason, decided to stop by the Fulton Street chainstore hell around lunch time.
At least the restaurant was nice. The game aired on a projector screen at the back of the bar and on a few TVs along the walls. Steel brewing vats filled the space behind the bar and the restaurant had a familiar, modern feel. More strings of flags lined the ceiling.
Both Kyle and Kate predict that Germany will win the tournament, but that didn’t stop Kyle from putting “a tenner” on England. Certainly his optimism is unique among England fans.
After I left the bar I circled back to some more halal guys. Salah is Moroccan and said he actually plans to take tomorrow off to celebrate Eid al-Fitr and might even watch Morocco play Iran.
Finally, I visited Mo, an Egyptian halal vendor on Joralemon Street. When I asked if he’d watch Mohammed Salah and Egypt take on Uruguay tomorrow, he looked at me like I was crazy:
“We have to work.”