I watched this World Cup in my fourth European country, and this time it reminded me of following soccer in a bar in Louisiana.
I’ve been to England, Northern Ireland, Spain and Ireland in recent weeks, and my experience has been different in all.
In England, national fervor swept the nation as their team exceeded expectations. In Spain, accustomed to soccer success and recent winners of the tournament, there was mild interest but an air of indifference. In Northern Ireland, the population is enjoying the spectacle but is not emotionally invested.
But there was a common thread in all three places, in that the mood of the country was reflected in the pubs. Everyone following the match was, more or less, feeling the same thing and reacting to events on the TV screen the same way. It’s not like that when you go to watch the competition in New Orleans, unless of course Team USA is playing.
The customers in an American soccer bar are nearly always divided to some degree, half rooting for Germany and half for Argentina, for instance. Sometimes one set of supporters may heavily outnumber the other, but there is still a division: after all, we are a nation built on immigration. In a bar in Dublin, the capital of Ireland, I had the nearest experience to what it is like to see a contest in an Irish pub in the Crescent City.
I went to see the quarterfinal between Brazil and Belgium. At kickoff there were six or seven Brazilian fans, wearing the famous yellow shirt and singing along to their national anthem. As the match went on, latecomers doubled the group. One carried a corgi dog, though I never asked which side it was rooting for.
There was no sign of any Belgian fans, but when the Europeans took the lead, the drinker behind me jumped up, yelled, and punched the air. He was with a couple of friends who appeared pleased, though less excited. I knew from his accent and his clothes that he was Irish, so I reckon his behavior was motivated by one of three things.
Perhaps he was simply being antagonistic towards the Brazilians. It’s possible, but I don’t think it was the case. His outpouring of joy at both the Red Devils’ goals seemed genuine, rather than being manufactured for a bit of good-natured banter.
Or maybe he was a genuine diehard fan with a strong tie to the country.
My guess is neither of these reasons. I think he probably had a bet on Belgium to win.
The Irish, on both sides of the border, love a wager. After living in Louisiana for 14 years, I had forgotten how prevalent betting is on the island. There are gambling stores on every high street, and bookmaking businesses advertise incessantly in the media and in print.
In nearly every conversation I’ve had about the World Cup over here, at some point betting odds are mentioned: “My mate has 10 pounds on France to lift the trophy" … "I backed Harry Kane to win the Golden Boot" … "Uruguay’s loss cost me 150 euros.”
My friends and relatives maintain it gives them an interest in games they would otherwise not care about, and most people I know only risk the equivalent of a few dollars. But it’s part of the soccer culture I had forgotten about until I returned to Europe for this tournament.
I was in a different bar the following night for the last quarterfinal when Croatia defeated Russia. Ironically, I sat next to six tourists from Michigan, one of whom was a keen soccer fan showing a greater interest in the match than the Irish patrons.
The contest was tied after extra time and went to penalty kicks. I said I fancied Croatia, while my cousin said he was sure Russia would win. So we bet on it. I won.
When in Rome. Or in this case, when in Dublin...