During the 1970s, I was one of those Americans who knew that the World Cup existed and that the rest of the world considered the tournament rather important. Sports Illustrated would publish a single story covering the semi-finals and finals, and that sufficed. It did not seem possible to me that the World Cup ranked at least equal in importance to the Olympics. Soccer? A single sport that the USA played badly? Bigger than dozens of events combined? No way.
I moved to San Francisco’s Mission District in January 1982, the year Spain hosted El Mundiale. Spanish-speaking immigrants from a few dozen countries call “Da Mish” home, and no matter which restaurant or coffeehouse you visited, you could hear a Spanish language television broadcast in the kitchen accompanied by frequent groans, the occasional stifled cheer followed by another groan, and a rare cheer as announcers shouted “GOAL!” at the top of their lungs.
So I got it: the World Cup was in fact at least as important as the Olympics, just not in the United States. I could intellectually if not emotionally understand that every nation on earth but one shuts down for the Final. I even managed to watch a few games in 1990 on Univision, where a young and somewhat hyper announcer named Andres Cantor introduced me to the word “gooooooooool,” a word that has no exact equivalent in the English language. The World Cup was kind of a big deal–besides, the United States actually played in 1990’s edition after upsetting Trinidad & Tobago in the qualifiers (our first appearance since 1950!), and even scored 2 goals in their three games, conceding only 8.
Then came 1994.
The World Cup came to America.
The San Francisco Bay Area hosted many of the teams and games (venue: Stanford Stadium), and if memory serves, Brazil and their zillions of followers took over the small city of Los Gatos, home of Gary Dahl, the inventor of the Pet Rock. In San Francisco, national flags of the competing countries suddenly appeared in windows where they had never appeared before. In North Beach (our Italian neighborhood) you saw only one national flag aside from the Stars & Stripes; in Da Mish, you saw Mexican, Argentinian, Bolivian, Colombian flags everywhere, predominantly Mexico’s. I lived in the Lower Haight at the time, where you saw a wider selection of flags, predominantly America’s.
And that’s when The Mad Dog in the Fog came into my life.
A year or two before the ’94 Cup, a gentleman and Aston Villa FC supporter from Birmingham, England moved to San Francisco and decided that his new home needed an English-style pub broadcasting soccer games from around the world and serving English-style pub grub and beers. So he opened the Mad Dog, replete with Ploughman’s Lunches, Newcastle Brown Ale, Baked Bean and Scrambled Eggs breakfasts, and claret-and-sky-blue Villa kits. His chief bartender was a Chelsea supporter, but somehow they got along well anyhow. Business did OK; the Mad Dog was a change of pace in San Francisco’s bar scene.
Then came 1994.
The World Cup came to America.
Not a bad time to own an English-style pub broadcasting soccer games from around the United States. The Mad Dog in the Fog became a sort of soccer factory with three shifts per day during group play. In the first shift, 10-20 fans from one country and 10-20 from another would sit down, drink one pint per half, eat breakfast, and watch their teams play. As soon as the game ended, everyone would leave, replaced by the second shift: 10-20 fans from one country and 10-20 from another would sit down, drink one pint per half, eat lunch, and watch their teams play. As soon as the game ended, everyone would leave, replaced by the third shift: 10-20 fans from one country and 10-20 from another would sit down, drink one pint per half, eat dinner, and watch their teams play. And yes, I love copy-and-paste.
But one game in group play stood out. Ireland-Italy. Played at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the game sold out in seconds (literally seconds) and if the home of the New York Football Giants held one million seats, it still would have sold out in minutes. American has tens of millions of descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants (I’m Irish-Scottish-English-French-Swiss-Austrian-Hungarian-Italian myself, maybe a little Russian) and they take pride in their ancestry.
San Francisco has huge Irish and Italian populations, and interest in this game ran even higher than the American games. Stuck in perhaps the most brutal Group of Death in World Cup history with Mexico and Norway (all four teams finished 1-1-1; all four teams finished with a goal difference of 0!), Italy had beaten the Republic of Ireland 1-0 in the 1990 WC quarterfinals and feelings still ran high. I wanted to watch the game on neutral territory and so selected the newish English-style pub a few blocks from home. I figured the Irish would never patronize an English establishment, whilst the Italians still stung from the Liverpool-Juventus Heysal Stadium disaster.
I figured the Mad Dog would be a nice quiet place to watch.
The English pub swarmed with Irish supporters.
I did not know that in San Francisco the Irish and English have no issues with supporting each other against common enemies such as Gli Azzuri. About 100 supporters of The Green Army consumed English beers and food as they cheered for their heroes (and I swear they were the loudest 100 people I have ever heard). Well, I supported the US team (just because I’m Irish-Scottish-English-French-Swiss-Austrian-Hungarian-Italian myself, with possibly a little Russian doesn’t mean I’ll root for anyone else) so I kept quiet and no one bothered me. I do know that one person in the crowd supported Italy and even wore the famous blue #10 jersey of Roberto Baggio; he sat next to me and kept even quieter.
The Irish, distinct underdogs, took a surprise first-half lead thanks to Houghton’s beautiful goal (I liked it even more than Wynalda’s free kick vs. Switzerland), and then spent the last 75 minutes of the game enduring one furious Italian offensive after another.During the second half the cameras frequently showed Ireland’s coach Jack Charlton on the sidelines, looking about as cheerful as if he had just swallowed whole an entire porcupine. Despite the grim demeanor, the 100 in the Mad Dog roared their approval of the man every chance they got.
This seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to get on the good side of the Irish supporters. So I tapped the shoulder of the nearest Green Army member.
“Excuse me, even though I’m American I know a little about the game, and I don’t understand why everyone is cheering for Mr. Charlton.”
His eyes bugged out in amazement. “Are you kidding?! We love Jackie Charlton! He’s the reason we’re in the Cup! He’s the greatest coach Ireland’s ever had!!”
“You realize of course that he’s English.”
He blinked a few times. Then he nodded one long slow nod and smiled. Benevolently. Really, quite benevolently. Then he put one hand on my shoulder.
“But he has to be English. Because only God can be perfect.”
And that is when I didn’t just get the World Cup–I felt it. For some people, the World Cup ranked second only to The Big Bang as the most important event in the history of this particular universe, and The City & County of San Francisco had gotten really lucky that the second most important event in the history of this particular universe had come to town.
Vonn Scott Bair
PS–In case you wondered, the Mad Dog has evolved. Some years ago, the Aston Villa supporter sold his pub for a handsome and very well-deserved profit and moved to the North Bay. These days, the pub broadcasts all sports and the menu has become more like a typical California brewpub.