The FIFA World Cup is back, and with it the quadrennial debate over when soccer will finally break through in the United States. Americans, the traditional line goes, are too saturated by football, basketball, baseball, and hockey to pay attention to soccer. But in an area as ethnically diverse as Hudson County, where everyone is either from somewhere else or descended from someone who was, signs of World Cup excitement are becoming easier to find. Even those who don’t follow the World Cup almost always know someone who does.
Paul Dawson, owner of Mulligan’s on First Street in Hoboken, is in awe of how popular the game has become. He still remembers being at a bar while the U.S. was playing in the 1994 World Cup and seeing only two people watching one small TV. When Dawson, a transplant from Dublin, Ireland, decided to open Mulligan’s in 2000, it was the only soccer-focused sports bar in Hoboken. At the time, he was told there was no way it could work.
Fourteen years later, says Dawson, nearly every bar in Hoboken is showing the World Cup. He said Mulligan’s has seen more fans in attendance for Cup games than ever before. When the U.S. national team played Germany to qualify for the round of 16, the bar was so packed that fans overflowed into the street—and remained outside celebrating when the U.S. qualified.
Even at noon on a recent Monday, at least six people were at Mulligan’s expressly to watch the elimination game between France and Nigeria.
Dawson said he was most surprised by the amount of support for Colombia’s national team. Fans come to Mulligan’s, he says, because they want to be around other fans who share their passion, even those who support the other team. “The fans make this game whatever it is,” added Dawson.
Passion in Union City
Union City may be known for its vibrant Cuban community, but it also had the seventh largest percentage of Ecuadorians among U.S. cities in the 2000 Census. During Ecuador’s games at the World Cup, fans gravitated toward places like Ceja’s Restaurant on Kennedy Boulevard to cheer on Los Amarillos, the Yellows.
When Ecuador played France on a recent Wednesday, Ceja’s was packed with supporters begging three huge flatscreen TVs for a goal, a free kick, or a red card for an opposing player. Andy Garcia, one of the bartenders, said Ecuadorians come from as far as Fairview and Newark to cheer with their compatriots and eat authentic ceviche and encebollado, a fish and onion stew.
Luis Valencia said he liked to come to Ceja’s during games to be together with other Ecuadorians. For him, the attraction of the World Cup was no mystery. “It’s soccer,” Valencia said with a shrug and a smile. He said he would still come even if Ecuador was eliminated from the World Cup, and that he would instead root for the United States.
Farther north in Union City at King Fashion on Bergenline Avenue, Hasu Choksi can barely keep World Cup merchandise on the shelves. When he was interviewed by the Hudson Reporter two weeks ago, he had already sold out of Ecuador jerseys, and Mexican and Colombian gear was going fast.
“Colombia, yesterday they win,” said Choksi. “I sell lots of Colombia. T-shirts and the flag, or jersey and the bracelet. Every country, they win, they want.” Choksi says he’s personally not very interested in the World Cup, but he’s “selling, because people are buying.”
Blue eyes in Bayonne
In Bayonne, World Cup fever struck right from the beginning of the tournament. Residents, business people, and visitors worked into their schedule a stop at a local bar or restaurant to take in the games.
At the San Vito Pizzeria on Broadway, owner Luciano Ventrone invited friends Arturo Radano and Tommaso Cusumano, both of Staten Island, to watch Italy compete in group play on June 20.
“They were coming here. I said let’s have a bite to eat and watch the game,” Ventrone said. At their table was a sumptuous feast of meats, cheeses, fish, fruits, and bread laid out on two large plates.
This was the third time that the three men had gotten together to watch World Cup play. “I watch everybody,” Ventrone said. “I like to see the best team win.”
A few doors away on Broadway at the Big Apple Lounge & Restaurant the interest in the international soccer completion was also high.
Luciano Servodio of Bayonne, fiancée Sandra, and her son, Daniel, watched the game between Italy and Costa Rica. All three were rooting for Italy, Servodio’s team, and were hoping it wouldn’t play Colombia, Sandra’s and Daniel’s choice, later in the tournament. That worry was soon dispatched; Italy didn’t make it out of group play, but Colombia did.
“People get very emotional over these games,” Servodio said. “Last week, Sandra’s family took up the whole side of the bar. It’s fun, you know? It’s a lot of fun.”
At the Bistro at Grove Square in Jersey City on a recent Sunday, the only people watching the World Cup were a group of vacationers from Sweden. The van Lunteren family had been staying in Jersey City for the past three weeks. The Bistro was the first bar they found in Jersey City, and they had been returning to it ever since to catch World Cup action.
On that Sunday, the van Lunteren men were decked out in orange jerseys and rooting for the Netherlands, the homeland of their grandfather (Sweden did not make this year’s World Cup). If the Dutch were knocked out of the tournament, said Joel van Lunteren, they would keep watching, but instead root for the host country Brazil.
Hannes van Lunteren said he was surprised by the excitement displayed by American fans during this World Cup. He recalled seeing U.S. celebrating in Manhattan’s Herald Square after a win. Still, van Lunteren did not have a very high estimation of America’s local club league, the MLS, which he characterized as where good international players go on their way out. Van Lunteren mentioned that he follows American football despite the fact that Swedish television only shows one NFL game per week.
The World Cup is a big deal in Sweden, on an equal level with the Olympic Games. A third place finish at the 1994 World Cup ranks among the country’s greatest sports triumphs.
Nonplussed in North Bergen
Not everyone in Hudson County is excited about the World Cup. Edith Shaw, an 80-year-old resident of North Bergen, said she’s not watching the World Cup and couldn’t care less who wins.
“I’m not really into—they call it football, I call it soccer,” said Shaw. “I like baseball.”
Still, even Shaw knew someone who was excited about the tournament. “My mother knows all about it,” said Shaw. “My mother’s born and raised in Germany. Married an American soldier, came here 65 years ago. When she was younger, that’s what she played when she was a kid.”