Thursday, May 17, 2007

The City's Immigrants Got Game

Our Town downtown
July 10, 2006

Most Manhattanites probably don’t know what to do with their feelings about the last few weeks’ World Cup soccer games. On one hand, if they watched them, they were likely drawn in by the non-stop movement of the helmet-less men and the stirring crowds with their singing and their flags and their love of country that we haven’t had in our lifetime here. (Did you notice that the U.S. players were the only ones who didn’t belt out their national anthem? You wonder why. Lots of reasons, for sure. None of which are Iraq or that the Star Spangled Banner is not a great tune. Sorry.)

On the other hand, soccer has for so many years been knee-jerk-dismissed as something white kids play in Fairfield County and Grosse Point with moms who pick them up in cars we of course would never drive, that there’s probably a reluctance to say: Hey, now I see what the fun is in this soccer, I envy you moms and your little kids who get to run around like that on those big fields while my kids spend their Saturdays in a special class at the Museum of Natural History.

People here have dug in their heels on so many issues that soccer represents to them that it was probably too tough for some of them to embrace it. And not to mention the dug-in sports guys who think soccer is for pansies, and always will.

But for many, many New Yorkers there was no conflict at all. The recent immigrants here have soccer in their blood. You can see it in some of the bars during the year that have live satellite feeds of games from Europe and Latin America. People will pay 20 bucks or so to go inside on an early Saturday morning to watch a game and drink beer with the windows covered. You’ll see Brits and Irish guys and Mexicans having a smoke on the sidewalk out front during halftime.

There’s a great pizza place on Third Avenue in lower Gramercy Park where the TV is on in the room past the counter where you can sit and eat. Soccer is on a lot in there. The two or three middle-age Italian owners sit there at a table strewn with Italian newspapers and, between work obligations, watch the games and talk about them knowingly—in Italian, which must be the most beautiful language. Customers come in to talk with them about the sport and to look at the foreign papers. The counter and the kitchen are manned by younger Mexican guys, most of them in baseball caps.

You sit there and you watch them, for a couple reasons. First they’ve not only learned English, they’ve learned Italian. The owners, it appears, were not about to learn Spanish, which you could take to mean they don’t respect the Mexicans. Or you could recognize it as a sign of respect that they believe the Mexicans can learn their Italian language. And the Mexican guys there all have. Italian is the lingua franca of the pizza place. Maybe the schools system here should take a page out of the owners’ book about language and high expectations.

Anyway, between making pizzas the Italian-speaking young Mexican guys sneak a peek every chance they get at the TV hanging at a bad angle for them. Their eyes are as wide and unblinking at the soccer game as ours are over a two-strike pitch in the ninth inning. You envy them their soccer passion and you feel for them for how far away from home they are, from where they once played all day in the sunlight.

You wonder how we look to them. They can tell some of the customers wish the owner would change the channel to the Yankee game or put on Jeopardy. And the owner will often do that. You wish he wouldn’t, even though you know a lot more about baseball than you’ll ever know about soccer. You surprise yourself that you wish that some soccer game were on the tube. But you grew to like the soccer conversation the two regulars would have with the one owner who sometimes gets wine for them out of the cooler by the table with all the papers. And you liked the way the Mexicans would look at the guys at the table when some team they all liked
scored a goal.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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