The World Cup began with a shock. On the last day of May, Senegal defeated the defending champions of France, Les Bleus, 1-0. The reverberations of that game were felt most keenly, of course, in Paris and Dakar. In the former city, a sort of collective, national mourning took place; while the latter capital basically shut down through the effects of spontaneous joy, embodied by speeding cars in the city's squares, the overflowing, honking vehicles looking, strangely, like hundreds of scarred survivors from a "Mad Max" film.
But even in a small storefront coffeehouse in University City, fans of the world's game knew that this would be a World Cup like few others. We gathered and watched, on a borrowed TV, with nationalities of all stripes represented. We may not have reacted with the unbridled anger of the Russians, the fierce patriotism of the host countries or the passion of the English, but we were there, tuned in and turned on by The World's Game.
For most Americans, the recently concluded games were a study in time management. After all, the starting whistles were going off halfway around the world, in Japan and Korea, giving American fans fits. For those of us in mid-America, games were beginning at 1:30 in the morning, at 4 in the morning, at 6:30 in the morning. At Meshuggah, the 6:30 "late" games started with precision, as owner Patrick Liberto traveled the two minutes from his residence to open the shop just prior to the matches.
This was his pattern, day after day, opening the lock, then pouring coffee, slicing bagels, sneaking peeks at the monitors when the cups were full. The venue's normal newspaper-and-coffee crowd would occasionally come in, shocked, early in the Cup's run. Before long, they knew what to expect. A couple even became part of the "new regulars" brigade.
On occasions with the U.S. playing an overnight match, Patrick's duty to his newly rabid clientele was equally strong. He was there for the 1:30 kickoff against Mexico. When the Americans scored, about two hours into the fresh workweek, the place erupted. "If the police come by, we're not open," the owner cracked, though cheers, chants and applause would continue until the final whistle at about 3:20 a.m.
The mornings were as different as the teams competing. When two squads with small fan bases played, there might be 15 people in the place, almost studious in their approach to viewing. When the U.S. was involved, or a big match like England vs. Argentina rolled around, the throng swelled and the noise increased. For the States vs. Germany, dozens packed the place, with some poor souls trapped behind the door as each last person came in, cramming into unavailable space, craning for a good view of the action.
Americans, often wrongly, assume the worst about soccer fans, assuming us all to be hooligans, face-painted, lager-drinkers with an exposed, pale belly and bad attitude; or as some sort of oddball, internationalist snobs. But, in America, we seem to take the game with a degree of perspective that might not be bad where the game's fever is most pitched. As teams were eliminated, supporters (sometimes expatriate nationals) would moan and mince, but not run out onto to Delmar to tip over cars. Everyone was in check.
At Meshuggah, the atmosphere was light, fun, breezy. For the most part. Admittedly, when the Americans played the Deutschen, my made-in-Germany veins began to pop, as one of my new compatriots began to crack WWII jokes. Going in, I couldn't figure out which team I'd support, my passport American, but my soccer roots planted deeply abroad; the nastiness of a couple stray comments convinced me: I'd go with the Motherland, a move that was rewarded by the team's progress into the Finals.
Yeah, that one character crossed the border of good taste with a few of his comments, and not just on that morning. Another would endlessly babble about tactics and styles, though his own knowledge hovered in the layman's range. And a once-quasi-celebrity would come in to cheer for anyone against the U.S., just to be contrarian. In an audience as varied as this one, three louts is a small price to pay for otherwise good company and good cheer. The regular faces were in place virtually every morning I could stumble in there. Old friends. Family. Maybe some new friends, too.
The World Cup ended without a shock. The skilled perennial contenders, Brazil, took a record fifth crown; the Germans, tireless but lacking punch, took the bridesmaid's gown. People with different looks, different accents, different stories took in the scene. Together. After a month of this, on the last day of June, Meshuggah was the only place I would've wanted to be.