Chasing The World: One Man's Crazy World Cup Quest
Mexico v Croatia, Ojos Locos
The roof of my car has sprung a leak in the middle of a tropical rainstorm, and the backseat is rapidly flooding. I'd pull over, but I've been stuck on an under-construction highway for the last half hour, and time is slipping away.
We're two weeks into the World Cup. At the behest of my editor, I have agreed to search Dallas for 32 people from the 32 countries competing in the tournament, in the spirit of North Texan multiculturalism. Moving here from Europe, I figured that right-wing, gun-toting Texas would be wall-to-wall with rich, angry white people. What I've found over the last two weeks is that it's far more diverse and interesting than England. I should have looked at Wikipedia.
Finding so many people of disparate locations and languages and persuading them to let me near them has been a pretty tall order of organization, confusion and misunderstanding. I've driven more than 1,000 miles, and I've got one trip left, from Dallas to Fort Worth in what may well be the apocalypse.
In the beginning I figured some simple social media appeals would wipe the whole thing out in days, and I could spend the rest of the tournament sending frantic texts to my editors, assuring them I was scouring Carrollton for Algerians when actually I was making great progress on FIFA 14's Career Mode. But right now the game is about to kick off, and I'm not actually near the house of the kindly Swiss man who has invited me to watch the game with him.
I've gotten through people bailing on me hours before games, people simply not turning up at all, cultural misunderstandings, nervous uncertainty about whether I work for a newspaper or am an extraordinarily cunning serial killer, and the amazing obscurity of some of the competing nations. I'm down to one team to go, I'm not actually at the game, and if Switzerland doesn't win they're eliminated, so the entire quest is wiped out on the jump over the final hurdle. I grip the steering wheel.
THURSDAY, JUNE 12
Croatia versus Brazil
Venue: Croatian Bosko Katic's humid garage in Rowlett
It's the first day of the World Cup and hope is fresh in the air, along with a torrential summer storm. Bosko Katic, a fair-haired 28-year-old native of Pozega, Croatia, used to play for Croatian mega-team Dinamo Zagreb and moved to Dallas eight years ago with his Bosnian-American wife, whom he proposed to three days after meeting her. He runs an Italian restaurant, because of course. He and his wife have two adorable kids, one of whom is old enough to tell her father she's supporting Brazil. She's immediately banished to the main house.
Nervously pacing the room, he explains he usually watches these games alone, and even curses in English occasionally for my benefit. Eventually, accompanied by a stream of invective I'm assured has no real English translation, Croatia succumbs to all manner of injustice. Katic's not out, though. I tell him we'll watch Croatia's second-round game together, and he smiles. "I would like that," he says, in his heavy Eastern European accent. I made a World Cup friend already.
Result: Brazil 3, Croatia 1
Countries remaining: 31
Head over the page to continue the quest
USA v Germany
FRIDAY, JUNE 13
Netherlands versus Spain
Venue: Henk's European Deli and Bakery, North Dallas
The closer you get to Henk's European Deli and Bakery, the more you become aware it's some sort of strange Alpine cottage-style building, utterly out of place in the 90 degree heat and the surrounding concrete of Northwest Highway and U.S. 75. I'm an hour early, but the bakery already is rammed to the gills with orange shirts, every available space occupied by the Dutch.
My Dutchman, a beaming short-haired man named Armando Villalobos, is sitting in the far corner with his friend Erik. Many of the Dutch contingent are clearly Americans with Dutch heritage, but Armando was born and raised in Rotterdam and is fluent in several languages. This helps when I embark on the first of my ill-conceived international friendship programs, by introducing a Spanish man into the Dutch lion's den.
Ruben Recio moved to Dallas from Madrid three years ago, after he met his Spanish-American wife during the previous World Cup in Spain. He's accompanied by his 7-week-old son Alejandro. It's good that Alejandro has no clue what's happening, because his father is only too aware that not only is Spain getting humiliated, but he's surrounded by a hundred Dutch fans, many of whom are standing on chairs and shouting. I resolve to support Spain because I feel responsible for Ruben's misery, and we stare at each other in terror as Iker Casillas, the legendary Spanish goalkeeper, does his best impression of an old man who's lost his glasses.
Armando is standing on a booth, shouting in excitement, a child has a World Cup-shaped horn he's blowing endlessly and a hundred people who are drunk at 2 p.m. on a Friday make an undulating sea of orange. Armando consoles Ruben in Spanish, then immediately turns around and starts talking to Erik in Dutch. Armando and Erik insist I come back for every Netherlands game. "You must be lucky," Armando says. "Or actually maybe it is Ruben who is lucky." "I'm not coming back," Ruben says, and I can't blame him.
Result: Holland 5, Spain 1
Countries remaining: 29
Chile versus Australia
Venue: Humperdink's, North Dallas
I make the sweaty drive during rush hour and get to Humperdink's, where a young and engaging claims adjuster named Leo Mondaca and his family will gather for a Chile-watching party. They're not difficult to spot, their 30 red shirts crammed in the far corner of the bar, away from mildly bemused regulars. Leo was born in Irving, but his father, an extraordinarily friendly man, describes how his family fled Chile in the 1970s to escape General Augusto Pinochet's regime. Leo and his father have pulled together what seems to be an entire Chilean community for this game, and they generate a gale of noise that swells across the spacious bar during the anthems. Two nearby men in ties look confused, if not a little bit afraid.
Chile scores twice in the first 15 minutes, and the party is on. Leo does shots of Jägermeister and, beaming, tells me about his recent, first-ever visit to Chile. It was congested and crazy down in Santiago, "more like New York."
I'm feeling pretty smug by this point. I've crossed four countries off my list, and by my calculations we're more than 10 percent done. As English soccer fans chant on the rare occasion they're comfortably winning a game, "EASY! EASY! EASY!"
Result: Chile 3, Australia 1
Countries remaining: 28
SATURDAY JUNE 14
Colombia versus Greece
Venue: Casa Vieja, Carrollton
Selfishly, I continue to smash countries into each other and hope no one gets stabbed. Nick Paraskevopoulos is my latest patsy. He's a native of Philly born to a Greek father who left Athens in the 1960s to move to Canada, and he meets me at Casa Vieja, an authentic Colombian restaurant in Carrollton, which is awash with yellow and red, a color burst in a drab strip mall that takes the breath away.
My Colombian contact, Anthony Muelle, a talkative, fashionable, friendly Dallas resident in his 40s, grew up in Miami with a family who emigrated from Bogota. There's nothing for Nick to cheer, so abject are the Greeks at trying to score a goal, their entire approach consisting of getting in the opposition half and then throwing themselves dramatically to the ground. Nick's happy enough, though. He tells us about the time his father, a tailor, made a suit for Dr. Dre. I wish Greece would at least put up a fight so I could feel better about my actions, but it's not to be. Poor Nick. What sort of monster am I? Is this why everyone hates the English?
Colombia runs away with the game, and the yellow shirts spill onto the concrete, leaving behind yet another nondescript strip mall, and the secretive, hidden pockets of Dallas culture are still just as hidden as they were before.
Result: Colombia 3, Greece 0
Countries remaining: 26
More over the page, including the despair of the English and the joy of Ivory Coast
Outside at Italy v England
SATURDAY JUNE 14 (cont.)
Italy versus England
Venue: A house near Denton
Now this: This was a terrible idea.
Have I mentioned I'm English? I'm English, I'm prone to outbreaks of hope and England has won very few meaningful competitive matches in the 21st century. Yet I've invited myself to the home of Maddi De Nicola, a football-mad Italian resident. I'm her guest, yet she is the enemy. I've got a tense, nervous headache before I even enter the house, its Italian flag flying high. What am I doing? Is this how Ruben and Nick felt?
De Nicola has watched every Italy game at a World Cup since 1982. (Italy, unlike England, always qualifies for the World Cup.) The party, rather than being Italian-weighted, is a huge multicultural bash, a benefit for families affected by a series of floods back in Italy. Maddi's husband has brewed a delicious beer in his beer barn out back.
With 50 or so people of all nationalities running around, a homebrewed beer, a swimming pool and tacos, it is one my favorite parties, right up until the football starts.
Italy takes the lead early in the second half, and my headache rages. Forty minutes of England pressure comes to nothing, with spud-faced simpleton Wayne Rooney placing the cherry of incompetence on his performance by attempting the single worst corner kick in the history of the World Cup. I briefly mumble some words to a celebrating Maddi and make my exit.
Result: Italy 2, England 1
Countries remaining: 25 (24 if you count me, which I probably should)
Ivory Coast versus Japan
Venue: Habibi Mediterranean Cafe, downtown Richardson
Driving from Denton to Richardson, telling myself that if England could somehow beat Uruguay everything would still be OK, my headache only gets worse. I'd love to go home and find solace in alcohol, the English solution, but I knew the next one was vital to this ridiculous quest. All of my usual avenues had not turned up a single Ivorian.
Desperate, I emailed an organization called "Ivorians in Dallas LLC." I was directed in halting English to a hookah bar and Mediterranean cafe in downtown Richardson. I didn't even know downtown Richardson was a thing.
The bar is empty, save for one worker behind the counter. I am dismayed. There are more Ivory Coast matches, but I need them to hit other countries. I look to my right and see a burly security guard (his T-shirt says "SECURITY" in capital letters) standing in front of a door with tinted windows.
"Is ... this ... a ... World Cup party?"
"Yes," he says. "Five dollars."
I hand the man five dollars.
He stamps a happy face on my hand.
Where am I going?
I push open the door and step into a room that's somehow even darker. I'm greeted by a man wearing bright orange and playing a large standing drum. With him are about 20 other Ivory Coast supporters, all looking nervous or drinking from various bottles of BYOB booze. I sit in the corner. The drum, in the middle of the room, is unowned, and really just there for whoever feels like bashing out a rhythm. The only lighting comes from old disco lights flashing orange and green, the colors of the Ivory Coast.
The man who contacted me about the party, Aristide Coulibaly, is looking pretty serious for a grown man in full football kit, down to the cleats and knee-highs. Every time Ivory Coast has a near miss, he gets up and does a small dance, seemingly to relieve the tension. Every time Ivory Coast even gets in the attacking half the noise in the room builds to a crescendo. It's raucous in here. I never want this to end.
Then Japan scores.
After some screaming and cursing in French, the atmosphere goes flat. The Ivorians occasionally threaten (the ones on the TV), but instead of joy, that's greeted now with a very loud nervousness bordering on anger. The atmosphere has turned completely on one kick of the ball.
In the second half, still a goal down, the camera cuts to Didier Drogba, who is warming up. Drogba is essentially a deity in the Ivory Coast, the player who has carried the team the last 10 years, a fearsome battering ram of a striker who wins games single-handedly through sheer force of will. As soon as Drogba enters the pitch, the entire team becomes reinvigorated.
A bullet header smashes a cross into the net, and the room explodes. Tables are overturned; drinks go flying. There's dancing and jumping and the unmistakable roar of a group of fans whose team just scored. Two security guards open the door to peer into the room only to have it closed on them again by a bouncing man careering into the door. The noise dies down slightly, people re-set tables, and suddenly Aristide discovers a microphone from somewhere.
"COTE" he screams. "D'IVOIRE!" reply 50 people at the top of their lungs.
"COTE COTE COTE!" "D'IVOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOIRE!"
Things settle down slightly, but another cross comes in. Ivory Coast scores again, twice in two minutes, to take the lead. People fall over, dance, bang drums, scream at the top of their lungs, and wordless sounds spill over tables, over chairs, into my ears and into my headache, and I am the single body in the entire room not in motion.
Fuck you, Wayne Rooney. Learn to kick a football.
Result: Ivory Coast 2, Japan 1
Countries remaining: 23
On the next page, the shock of the Ecuadorians, the worst game of soccer ever, and a defense of Honduras
German fans at Trinity Hall
SUNDAY, JUNE 15
Ecuador versus Switzerland
Venue: The Londoner, Addison
The Londoner is home to the British expat community, and it became the area's heart of soccer viewing for this reason. On big match days, you can't even get in the doors.
Another man who promptly answered one of my many panicked requests on the Observer's social media, Fernando San Lucas, arrived in America from Ecuador 12 years ago, in part because he likes American rock music so much. His favorite show ever was Queens of the Stone Age in a church in Atlanta. A long-haired rock music fan with a deep appreciation of soccer? It's clear we'll get on.
Ecuador takes an early lead, and the Ecuadorians are buoyant, chanting with the help of rhythm produced by hitting a plastic ashtray on a table. But the Swiss score an equalizer, which makes the two lone Swiss supporters, who are sitting directly behind the Ecuador group, happy.
It's injury time at the end of the game, and an Ecuador player, delaying his shot, is thwarted from the edge of the box by a brilliant tackle. Switzerland breaks upfield, pushes the ball wide, pushes it back into the box. A Swiss midfielder zooms in and hammers the ball into the top of the goal to win the game with the last kick of the match. The Ecuador supporters fall silent, horrified. They've lost to the latest goal in World Cup history. The Swiss order more drinks, and the previously rhythmic ashtray is flung in frustration.
Result: Switzerland 2, Ecuador 1
Countries remaining: 22
France versus Honduras
Venue: Press Box Grill, downtown Dallas
Geraldine Prevotat left France in the '90s with a one-way ticket and a bag of clothes. She likes my weather reports on the Observer's blog, apparently, and that's why she answered my pleas. Geraldine chose this venue because she lives directly above it.
Jacqueline Padilla, meanwhile, tells me her Honduran father scheduled knee surgery for the day before the World Cup, so his "recuperative period" would exactly overlap with it. It's fair to say the Padillas are big soccer fans.
Dozens of emails on my part have paid off with both Geraldine and Jacqueline arriving on time for the game, and their finding me is aided by the fact the bar is, like most of downtown Dallas, almost entirely deserted.
The Honduras team flies into tackles with an abandon usually reserved for hockey players, and start just as many fights. "Why are they breaking our players?" Geraldine protests. "They were in the way!" This, clearly, is the Honduras attitude to football.
Nevertheless, Honduras is massively outgunned, and their fiery temperaments see them lose their best player to a red card in the first half. They also concede a penalty and an own goal before France's Benzema smashes one into the roof of the net, "a proper goal at last," as Geraldine calls it. She's not impressed. "I am going back to bed." It's 4 p.m.
Jacqueline, meanwhile, is appalled with the Honduran performance, and I can't say I disagree. "SHOOT!" she roars, as another Honduran looks for a pass that isn't there. Her father, I am reliably informed, will be losing his goddamn mind right about now.
Result: France 3, Honduras 0
Countries remaining: 20
MONDAY, JUNE 16
Iran versus Nigeria
Venue: An anonymous office building in Plano
In the back of an office building somewhere in Plano's endless swath of identikit office buildings, I am sitting, homebrew in hand, with two Iranian cousins and four Nigerians. I often reflect, as a European in Texas with a writing job at a newspaper, on how I end up in certain situations. An Iranian's wife had emailed me, and then I had been drawn into planning what turns out to be quite the office party. Cameron Allahverdi, whose father fled the Iranian revolution with the wife he met studying at UNT, hands me some baklava. Nigeria misplaces a pass. One of the Nigerians, unfailingly polite, stands up and bellows at the Nigerian culprit, "YOU ARE A SILLY MAN!"
The game is an abomination, a stain on an otherwise thrilling tournament, but the company is perfect. One Nigerian, a man called Thomas who is a friendly soul, spends his time questioning the motivations of the Nigerian players. "What are you doing? Who is that to? What were you thinking?" The reserved Nigerians, cheerful and world-weary, far removed from the European fire, are my favorite crowd so far.
Cameron runs a printing company out of this space, creating T-shirts for nine of the local DFW breweries at the same time as being an award-winning brewer and a new father for the second time. He made the baklava too.
Top marks to Cameron, bottom marks to both teams.
"I will never watch another Nigeria game again," one of the Nigerians declares.
"What about the World Cup final?" another asks.
"They are terrible. They will never make the World Cup final."
"I hope they do now, just so you are wrong."
"I would not watch it."
"Yes you would."
"I would not! They are terrible. Just terrible."
The room nods in agreement.
Result: Nigeria 0, Iran 0
Countries remaining: 18
USA versus Ghana
Venue: African Village Kitchen, Irving
A Cameroonian man informed me that all African nations gather here to watch their games, so I take a long shot on a 35-mile drive from Plano at rush hour. What I find is a kindly Cameroonian lady, who is willing the USA to win because "Ghana are the enemy," and I'm beginning to see why no Ghanaians are here.
Result: USA 2, Ghana 1
Countries remaining: Still 18
Over the page are thousands of Mexicans, Gavin goes on Korean language radio with disastrous results, and two Cameroonians have a heated argument over Samuel Eto'o
TUESDAY JUNE 17
Brazil versus Mexico
Venue: Ojos Locos Sports Cantina, North Dallas
It's 97 degrees and hundreds of people are standing outside in a non-air conditioned tent. The bar, which holds 400 or so, has been full for hours. People are booing a TV for not working properly. Somewhere in the crowd, a man hits a snare drum. Then other people join in hitting the same snare drum. None of them has any rhythm. Who says 0-0 ties aren't interesting?
Result: Brazil 0, Mexico 0
Countries remaining: 17
Korea versus Russia
Location: A radio studio in North Dallas
Thanks to an email from Korean language sports broadcaster Will Choe, who saw one of my social media appeals, I find myself live on KKDA-AM 730 Dallas Korean Radio, talking into a microphone to an audience that is second-language English at best, about their national sports team.
I offer the following searing wisdom: "Korea's counterattack is good." "Korea should shoot more, but on target." "That goal was lucky." I only speak about four times in the 90 minutes, but I manage to sound like the village idiot from three villages. Will looks concerned, but he offers me a cinnamon-flavored rice cake, so he's all right by me.
Result: Korea 1, Russia 1
Countries remaining: 16
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 18
Australia versus Netherlands
Venue: Trinity Hall
Cameroon versus Croatia
Venue: African Village Kitchen
After meeting Tearlach Hutcheson, a Sydney native who's resided in Dallas the past 20 years, at Trinity Hall for Australia's narrow defeat to the Netherlands, I trek back to African Village Kitchen, scene of my failure to find a Ghanaian. On my last visit I learned that it is run by a Cameroonian, and she is football-mad except for when it comes to Ghana. On my arrival, owner Grace Ndam already has her Cameroon shirt on, and has been joined by a small congregation of her fellow Cameroonians. She sits in a chair behind the counter, a beaming smile on her face throughout, and is never anything less than exceedingly jolly.
There's not a lot to be jolly about. Cameroon suffers from a serious bout of indiscipline, with its star midfielder shown a red card for punching a Croatian in the back. They quickly fall apart, conceding goal after goal until the game is an embarrassment.
Grace and the man sitting next to me, a Cameroonian by the name of Serge who was so delighted to hear this pale white Englishman was supporting Cameroon he bought me a bottle of water, have a heated argument about Cameroon's living legend, striker Samuel Eto'o.
I slope out. No European is coming between two Cameroonians arguing about the usefulness of Samuel Eto'o. I also don't understand French.
Result: Australia 2, Netherlands 3
Countries remaining: 15
Result: Croatia 4, Cameroon 0
Countries remaining: 14
England is still terrible and I have to watch them with more foreigners, next
Germany and Ghana fans get together at Trinity Hall
THURSDAY, JUNE 19
England versus Uruguay
Venue: The Londoner, Addison
I figure I may as well watch the England game with Uruguayans, as I'll be watching those in bars anyway. Two-weeks-ago Gavin was full of hope for the ability of English soccer players, and he is stupid and I hate him.
I know I have to watch all the teams, but watching the teams England is playing with people of those countries is, it turns out, my least favorite thing, up there with summers in Dallas and Luis Suarez.
Jonathan Campos and his mother, Beatrice, who moved to Dallas in 1980 after marrying her Texan husband whom she met while he was doing missionary work in Montevideo, explain why it's been a struggle to find Uruguayans. "We are not joiners," Beatrice says. "Other countries have parties to watch games, we do not." Not a social bunch. Noted.
By the end of the game we've acquired three more Uruguayans and a Telemundo camera. I realize I'm wearing blue. Goddammit. Sorry, Spanish TV. I'm not Uruguayan. I'm actually quite English, and quite angry.
Result: Uruguay 2, England 1
Countries remaining: 13
SATURDAY, JUNE 21
Argentina versus Iran
Venue: Trinity Hall
Soccer bars are the best, because you know they'll be full of people who actually give a shit about soccer. Dozens of Argentinians flock to Trinity Hall, exactly as my contact, Sebastian, had predicted. Sebastian was born in Buenos Aires but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 2. He and about 40 Argentinians crowd the big TV to witness one of the most bemusing games in World Cup history.
Argentina has millions of dollars of attacking talent at its disposal. Iran has some guy who plays for Charlton in the English second division and some other guys they found in the Iranian football league. Yet Iran damn near snatches the game, to the horror of the watching Argentinians. Of course, Messi eventually curls a perfect shot into the far corner, the bar erupts like the team has won the World Cup, and 92 minutes of pent-up tension is released in chants and shouting and scarf-waving and dancing.
Result: Argentina 1, Iran 0
Countries remaining: 12
Germany fans at Victory Plaza
Germany versus Ghana
Venue: I'm still at Trinity Hall
I have been terrified about finding a Ghanaian. Every game brings me ever closer to the end of Ghana's World Cup campaign, and the failure of my quest. Ever since Rutherford the Cameroonian mistakenly told me Ghanaians would be at African Village Kitchen, the trail has gone cold. I've tried drum teachers, high priests, Ghanaian churches, Cameroonians. I've Googled "Ghana Dallas." I've tried expat message boards. Nothing.
Then, as I linger in Trinity Hall, Julian appears. He's wearing the new Ghana kit and a Ghana hat, and his girlfriend has a Ghana hat on, too. I interrogate. He's a Ghanaian national whose family moved to the States when he was 2, he says. I tell him he's the answer to my prayers. I think he's a bit scared by how enthused I am to meet a Ghanaian.
Bonus: There are Germans here. They celebrate the opening goal in the most reserved manner I've ever seen for a World Cup goal. So when Ghana scores three minutes later, not only does a sudden silence fall across the German contingent, but that silence is broken by the wild hollering of Julian and two other Ghanaian ladies, who are wearing bright multi-colored Ghana shirts.
When Ghana puts another past a sleepy Germany five minutes later, one of the ladies can barely control herself.
"GHANAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" she shouts.
The Germans stare at the screen, horrified. Scarves hang limply around necks. Drinks go undrunk.
The Germans eventually get going, and Ghana squanders other opportunities to win the game, and play out an absolutely thrilling draw. Me? I'm just happy to have found Julian.
Result: Ghana 2, Germany 2
Countries remaining: 10
USA fans feel the heat in Victory Park
SATURDAY JUNE 21 (cont.)
Bosnia-Herzegovina versus Nigeria
Venue: Eddie's Sports Bar & Grill, Garland
A Bosnian was one of the first people to email me about this adventure. I was delighted, as I assumed they'd be one of the most difficult countries to find. Deep down, I knew it was all too good to be true, but after he (naturally) pulled out, I received a mysterious email from a man called Dalibor apropos of absolutely nothing. No Facebook post, no Twitter appeal, nothing. I've no idea where Dalibor came from. This is how our email exchange went.
"Hi I am from Former Yugoslavia."
"Hi Dalibor! What part of former Yugoslavia?"
"Brilliant!" I then launched into a long explanation of the project and how I'd love to watch a game with him.
"There is bar in Garland called Eddie's."
I venture straight from Trinity Hall. Dalibor is not here, but an entire table of Bosnians is.
Sandra and her eldest daughter fled Sarajevo in 1997. Her two youngest daughters, who Sandra says "have never seen Bosnia," have the Bosnian colors of yellow and blue painted on their faces. They strike the table angrily when Bosnia is denied a goal by a lousy offside call and they strike it again when Nigeria scores the winner. The Bosnian team, like Sandra and her children, grew up all over the world after fleeing the country. While they might not be going anywhere in this World Cup, it's amazing to see them playing as a unit, and to see the scattered Bosnians of the world be there to watch them do so.
Result: Nigeria 1, Bosnia-Herzegovina 0
Countries remaining: 9
SUNDAY, JUNE 22
Belgium versus Russia
Venue: Dallas Beer Kitchen
Algeria versus Korea
Venue: Allen Wickers Pub in Plano
After meeting a Russian named Vadim amid a sea of Belgians on Lower Greenville for an 11 a.m. Belgian beer party, something more troublesome was in the pipeline. I spent a long time convinced that no one had ever left Algeria. While finding other nationalities was relatively easy with social media, Algerians required serious hunting. Copious Googling at last turned up an Algerian school in the suburbs, but its website had no contact information. Eventually, I hunted the contact details of one Chafik Ben Guesmia. I call the number. A suspicious man asks me to call him back on another number.
Chafik Ben Guesmia, Ben to his friends, says he is organizing an Algerian watch party for the team's only weekend game, and invites me along. I arrive to the sight of four Algerians decked out in patriotic shirts and scarves in a chain bar in Plano. That was a gamble. If I'd got here and there'd been no Algerians, I'd be up a proper creek without a water-aid by now, crying into my beer while watching Algeria versus Korea alone, unable to explain to anyone why I was weeping.
The Algerians come armed with aspirin for their nervous soccer headaches, which they proudly rattle at me, and Ben declares he won't be speaking until the Algerians score goals. This is a team that hasn't won a game at the World Cup since 1982, so I thought we might not be hearing much of Ben. But Algeria scores three in the first half. "IT IS NOT ENOUGH!" declares Ben excitedly. By the time the game nears its end, the Algerians are so lovably enthusiastic that many of the American fans, waiting on the next game, join in cheering for them.
Result: Russia 0, Belgium 1
Countries remaining: 7
Result: Algeria 4, Korea 2
Countries remaining: 6
The final stretch is over the page. Can I make it to 32?
Ricardo and Lidia, my Portuguese representatives
Portugal versus USA
Venue: Three Links, Deep Ellum
While my first week or so on this quest was properly organized, with a Google calendar and everything, by this stage I am just flying by the seat of my pants, or trousers as I fervently believe they should be called. No calendar, just a faulty memory and regular bouts of speeding down highways in confusion, remembering that I hadn't contacted the person I was meant to be meeting in an hour in the last few days.
Thankfully, Ricardo takes the initiative and emails me himself while I'm watching with the Algerians. Ricardo and wife Lidia are both new to Dallas, moving here from Luxembourg to study, but both have spent most of their lives in Portugal. We meet at Three Links in Deep Ellum. Since opening in 2013, it's quickly become one of Dallas' premier punk venues, but owner Scott Beggs also likes his soccer.
The bar is packed with American fans, but they're the perfect sort -- the non-shirt wearing, too-cool-to-chant variety.
In the 89th minute, Portugal trailing, its World Cup hopes fading, Ricardo is face down on the bar, emitting quiet groans. Then comes Ronaldo's cross into the box. The bar inhales sharply while Ricardo and Lidia stand in anticipation. It's a goal.
The crowd groans while Ricardo bashes the bar in sheer joy and whoops. Portugal is still (kind of) alive, and Ricardo and Lidia look like they've aged about 10 years in the last 90 minutes. Ricardo and I exchange a series of looks of relief, incredulity, disbelief, happiness. Some games speak for themselves.
Result: USA 2, Portugal 2
Countries remaining: 4
MONDAY, JUNE 23
Brazil versus Cameroon
Venue: Blue Charcoal Brazilian Restaurant, Richardson
A lady in a Brazil shirt is giving an impassioned speech, partially in Portuguese, partially in English. A DJ who's apparently only brought a 30-second loop of a 1980s disco song that says "BRASIL!" over and over is spinning his magic. I have some weird pastries, one full of what I imagine is beef, another cheese, and another I think perhaps chicken. All look identical. How do Brazilians live with this kind of uncertainty?
They dance. Even if no one else around them is dancing, they dance. They also loudly insist people around them dance.
The game's tied at halftime. They dance anyway, because they're Brazilian. By the end of the game, the whole room is dancing.
Result: Brazil 4, Cameroon 1
Countries remaining: 3
TUESDAY, JUNE 24
Costa Rica versus England
Venue: OT Tavern, Greenville Avenue
There were Costa Ricans there, OK?
I don't want to talk about it.
Result: England 0, Costa Rica 0
Countries remaining: 2
Netherlands fans in Henk's
Japan versus Colombia
Venue: A Buffalo Wild Wings in Denton
Apparently, Japanese people just don't read the Dallas Observer, making finding one extraordinarily difficult. I've lost track of the number of confused employees of Japanese restaurants I've dealt with, trying to find a soccer fan.
So it was with great relief I found Chris Hoye, the half-Japanese, half-Irish cousin of a coworker. Chris had spent some considerable time teaching English in Japan and was only too happy to share some insights into the Japanese team, who he impressed on me were hugely important to Japan. For instance, a lot of the Japanese fans were wearing headbands with two characters that translated roughly to "total victory." While this might sound kind of dickish, a more literal translation would impress upon the reader that the total victory was earned through hard work, humility and sacrifice.
See? I learned something. Which is good, because the football is no good. Japan is getting spanked by Colombia. They don't seem to roll around on the floor as much as the South American or European teams, I tell Chris, whose Japanese mother met his Irish-American father on a student exchange trip. "That wouldn't be masculine. We're very big on masculinity."
I like Chris.
"No Asian accent can be considered sexy, even if we try really hard. It's ridiculous." I like Chris a lot.
When Japan ships the fourth goal, however, he leaves abruptly, throwing his hands up in the air. "Well, that's over."
Result: Colombia 4, Japan 1
Countries remaining: 1
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 25
Switzerland versus Honduras
Venue: Hans Muller's house in Haltom City
I'm sitting in my partially ruined car outside Hans Peter Muller's home, and I feel like the weight of a world has lifted off my damp shoulders. I've made new friends, seen bizarre sights, been to incredible parties, seen rooms swathed in bright colors all over Dallas, eaten bizarre foods and utterly neglected my family. I'm already planning a party for everyone I met on this trip, so we can all watch the World Cup final together. It'll be the most multicultural party of all time, because the United Nations certainly isn't a party, and it all happened here in Dallas-Fort Worth. Who would have thought it? After another few moments contemplation, I get out the car, shake off some water, and stride up to Hans' house. He opens the door.
He's wearing a France shirt.
I wake up. It's definitely wet, and I'm still sitting totally incapable of movement in roadworks somewhere in a concrete metropolis. I've been sitting here for an eternity. The game's started already. If this traffic doesn't move, if Hans has some kind of emergency, or if this car finally breaks down, this whole thing is over.
When I do finally get to Hans' house, after an hour picking my way slowly through the most treacherous conditions and endless traffic and detours, I sit outside his house for a minute, collecting myself. The game's already started, but the quest is over. I walk up to his house and knock on the door. I'm greeted by a fusillade of barking, and Hans, wearing a Switzerland shirt, answers the door. It's all over. Hans has bratwurst and beer, his dogs are adorably terrified of the thunderstorm, the roof of the house isn't leaking and Switzerland is dominating the Honduran foe. Everything is perfect.
Result: Switzerland 3, Honduras 0
Countries remaining: 0
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