Match Day 20 — July 7, 2018
The Match: Croatia finally took out Russia on penalties
The Venue: Cafe Baltazar in Astoria
The Vibe: Astoria in 2018
A father sat on the floor with his two little boys playing a board game while a stream of Croatians and their allies squeezed past at halftime. We were polite, waiting for the exiters to step through the gap in the crowd before we moved further inside the bar.
In the back of the Baltazar in Astoria, an empty Fritos bag sat crinkled between two sippy cups on a table sprinkled with chip dust. There, on a stool in front of a television, the most diehard Croatian supporter, the only one watching with his hands to his mouth, his eyebrows knitted intensely, was actually Australian.
He was staying at a hotel nearby and asked the concierge where he should watch the match. He was a diehard Croatian supporter, said he played in a pub league with a bunch of Croatians at home, but he was one of the few in my corner of the bar. I stood next to several WASPy kids in fraternity t-shirts who chatted about summer break plans throughout the second half.
This was a far cry from the 2014 World Cup, where the Croatian fans at Scorpio Bar stood on tables, thumped the ceiling and ripped cigarettes after every goal in their 4-0 win against Cameroon. That was the closest approximation of hooliganism I’ve encountered inside a New York City bar.
Scorpio closed about a year ago, though.The lease got too expensive, a guy in a blue Croatia jersey at Baltazar told me. Another casualty of the cutthroat New York City real-estate market.
And so the evolution of Croatian viewing parties tracks the evolution of Astoria, perhaps even serves as a window into the gentrification of the neighborhood, where the average rental price for a one-bedroom is $2,109.
Here’s one more change since summer 2014. I took an Uber to the bar. I didn’t have even have the app four years ago.
Baltazar is nice, well lit and airy with plenty of television, including two above the bar. Exposed filament light bulbs dangle from the ceiling and the sleek chrome bar is topped with a shiny black countertop. Rows of martini glasses rest on the shelves behind the bartenders.
The old school holdouts, like the middle-aged guy in a Croatia flag bandana and cargo shorts, seemed to congregate on the concrete patio outside, where they could chain smoke and grimace through a tense second-half draw.
The new school, meanwhile, debated local politics.
Two non-Croatians behind me began chatting about the pitch-side ads, which reminded them of the money Rep. Joe Crowley raised before his shocking loss to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
I had to leave at the end of the 90 minutes to attend an event in Brooklyn. On the way to the train, I stopped at a pizza place down the block where the head cook wore an Ocasio-Cortez t-shirt. I told him nice shirt and, a minute later, he called me over as I watched the match alone on the projector screen in the back of the shop.
“Let me ask you a question,” he said. “Do you like de Blasio?”
“He’s not as progressive as he pretends to be,” I responded.
“That’s it,” the cook said and smiled.
I ate a slice, watched Vida score the go-ahead goal and heard the eruption from Baltazar down the block. I hurried to the R and headed a few stops east to the Q58 bus in Elmhurst. While I waited, I ducked into a dim dive bar on Grand Avenue five seconds after Russia scored to tie it up. I watched the replays and when I poked my head out of the door the arrived. Strange timing overall.
I stood on the bus and followed the penalty kicks on my soccer app’s live ticker until a young guy in a pink Barcelona Sporting Club jersey boarded. I noticed he was watching the shootout on his iPhone, so I stood behind him.
Together, we watched the end of the match via his choppy internet connection, which enabled us to see one new frame every five seconds. Rakitic sealed the game just before I got off in Maspeth and walked home to Ridgewood.
What a writer! Are you sure I’m not reading something by the living reincarnation of Jimmy Breslin?