Playing Hooky in Bars: Watching the World Cup in Charlotte Part III

Correspondent Andy Graves continues his coverage of World Cup-watching and celebrates Landon Donovan's epic goal at Picasso's

Read Andy Graves’ World Cup preview here, complete with a list of great places in Charlotte to watch all the matches.
Check out his coverage of a whirlwind first weekend of the World Cup here.

Here we are, midway through the 2010 World Cup. It’s turned out to be a wild and unpredictable ride, with former tournament finalists France and Italy headed home and Team USA eking out a win over Algeria, with just seconds left in the match, to advance alongside perennial powers like Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and the Netherlands to the knockout-round quarterfinals. It’s been a long, tense two weeks.

This year’s World Cup has offered a relentless docket for the dedicated working viewer. The first two weeks of the tournament featured three or even four matches most days. Depending on what you do and where you punch the time clock, catching much of the action falls somewhere on the spectrum of relative difficulty between “pain in the ass” and “next to impossible.” While the luxury of the Internet has made it easier—much easier—to get news of the games in real time, there’s still no substitute for watching the action yourself, free from distractions.

Despite the unfortunate timing of the games, local taverns, pubs, and sports bars have been bustling. Incidences of calling in sick to work abound. So, too, does the practice of “working from home,” as was on display at Ri-Ra for last Friday’s breakfast-time game between Germany and Serbia, when by match’s end a dozen laptop computers could be seen around the bar area near Ri-Ra’s large TV screen. The early-morning fans, mostly in button-downs and khakis, logged in and then settled back for a Guinness and the game—essentially being paid to watch soccer.

Then the more colorful fans began to show up. Later that same Friday morning, the United States played its second match, against Slovenia. As the first match wound down, fans of Team USA trickled in. Mostly in their twenties and thirties, they came decked out in official-looking USA soccer jerseys or homemade outfits—spectacular displays that often included a team towel around the shoulders, or an Old Glory neckerchief. Or red, white, and blue face paint with a crazy wig. Or a cape. One fan at Ri-Ra proudly carried a vuvuzela, the much-maligned fan-favorite plastic horn you hear bleating like a wounded wildebeest throughout the televised matches.

The real action was at Courtyard Hooligans, in the heart of uptown, where the Queen City Outlaws, Charlotte’s self-described biggest fans of Team USA, gathered in their signature red T-shirts and assorted stars-and-stripes paraphernalia to chant and sing and chant some more throughout the course of the match. Led by Scott, the Outlaws’ hyperkinetic group president, who banged out the beat on the bar counter and overhead supports, the barroom erupted every few minutes with one of a half-dozen pro-USA ditties. There were sixty or seventy people singing “Oh when the Yanks go marching in,” to the lilting tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” stomping happily and lifting pints of beer into the air.

Most cheers were riddled with expletives—one was something about “the mighty fuckin’ USA”—and there were loving references to American goalkeeper Tim Howard’s Tourette syndrome. For a few minutes at the beginning of the game, the unruliness and sheer volume felt forced and uncomfortable, unnecessarily nationalistic, coarse and obnoxious. The hoopla seemed to distract from the match on TV. Then, as the game progressed, it became tough to imagine watching without it. This was a unique opportunity for the counterculture to be outrageously patriotic, and the mood was intoxicating. When the U.S. side scored, the room erupted with a round of “God Bless America,” like a ship’s worth of drunken sea pirates belting out a shanty.

Five days later, this past Wednesday, the Americans played again, this time against Algeria. There were a number of esoteric scenarios for advancement, but essentially Team USA needed a win. By kickoff, Picasso’s Sports Cafe, on East Boulevard, had filled comfortably. Picasso’s is perhaps one of the best-equipped sports-watching establishments in the city, with large TVs bolted to every available bit of wall space, mini-TVs at some of the booth tables, and a large-screen projection TV at the front of the room. It offered a special menu that included breakfast sandwiches. This was a more subdued crowd—no chanting, and many more corporate types: here and there a pair of khakis, a few neckties, no American-flag kerchiefs. Most people were fiddling with their breakfast sandwiches as they watched the American squad battle the Algerians.

A guy named Spence, who was seated at the bar, admitted he was playing the “working from home” card—working, but not really working. He flashed me his BlackBerry. Spence had caught the previous weekend’s American match at Hooligans but couldn’t gather friends to accompany him there at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. “I meant to stay home to watch, but I couldn’t,” he confided. “It doesn’t feel the same. I’ve got to be someplace where everyone else is watching the match.” The game was a zero-to-zero nail-biter, replete with lousy calls by the referee—and another goal thrown out—a bit of pushing and shoving, and missed chances and blown opportunities. Spence hardly spoke, to me or to anyone, as ninety minutes of soccer passed. Our players on the field in Pretoria, South Africa, were visibly exhausted, and in the dim, air-conditioned hush at Picasso’s, a roomful of Charlotte fans were exhausted, too. The all-but-certain tie game meant the American side would be done with the tournament.

And then, in the fading moments of the match, Landon Donovan knocked the ball to a teammate, who sent it upfield. The room was silent as the Americans sprinted deep into Algerian territory. When the shot careened off the Algerian goalkeeper, Donovan was there to bang it home. Picasso’s erupted with cheers.

Catch the next match Saturday, June 26, at 2:30 p.m., when the Americans play Ghana. Wondering where to watch? Have a suggestion? Leave it in the comments.

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