NEW YORK — I was trying to watch the match on the TV over the bar, but it was hard to see around some very tall Belgian women wearing red devil costumes and brandishing tridents.
This happened during the Belgium-Algeria match in the 2014 World Cup, in a Belgian restaurant, BXL Zoute, in the Flatiron district of Manhattan.
It is one of the great joys of this polyglot metropolis: watching a world-class soccer game in the company of knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans from competing teams — preferably with national food and drink being served.
That opportunity is here again. From June 14 through July 15, the World Cup will be played around Russia. Because Russia is seven or more hours ahead of New York, the matches will start between early breakfast and late lunch.
Until that match in 2014, I had never experienced a full World Cup in my hometown. As a sports columnist for The Times, I attended eight consecutive World Cups, starting in 1982.
I ate traditional mussels while I watched favored Belgium fall behind, 1-0, in the 25th minute as Belgian fans became subdued. In the 65th minute, Belgium inserted a lanky offensive player, Marouane Fellaini, whom I recognized from his wondrous head of hair. Almost immediately, Fellaini leapt and headed a cross into the goal to tie the match. Tall women in red devil outfits brandished their tridents. Ten minutes later, Belgium scored again and defeated plucky Algeria. More brandishing. I enjoyed myself immensely.
The United States failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but Americans in New York can make the best of a bad situation. In the spirit of global unity, they can eat and drink their way through the city by munching on kimchi dumplings while rooting for South Korea or by downing shots of Brennivín while celebrating a goal by Iceland. Throughout New York, fans of Mexico (tacos al pastor!), Japan (Sapporo!), Uruguay (chivito!) and Nigeria (goat head!), in addition to 28 other nations, will be exulting or despairing at pubs and restaurants all over the five boroughs.
And there will be despair. The worst I have seen in a New York soccer cafe was at my beloved L’Angolo in Greenwich Village for the 1999 Champions League final. After 80 minutes, Bayern Munich had a 1-0 lead over Manchester United.
When the Bayern coach took out the aging superstar Lothar Matthäus, German fans in the cafe screamed in protest. Sure, bringing in fresh legs for Matthäus was a standard coaching tactic, but not — the Bayern fans told us in perfect, anguished English — in the Champions League final. It would become known as one of the most disastrous coaching decisions in soccer.
Sure enough, Manchester United scored twice to win, 2-1. My friend Massimo Lopes Pegna, the longtime American correspondent for the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, and I had to talk the distraught German guys out of throwing themselves under the Houston Street bus.
But there is nothing but pleasure in being a neutral. In 2010, my flight was delayed to the World Cup in South Africa. Stranded in New York, I made the best of it on the first Sunday of play, trekking to three matches in three eateries in three distinct neighborhoods along with my grandson, also named George. Our itinerary:
Slovenia vs. Algeria at 7:30 a.m. on the Upper East Side. Around 25 people of Slovenian background had rented Manny’s, a sports bar, bringing delicacies like jabolcni strudl (apple strudel) and potice (a walnut pastry). After Slovenia prevailed, 1-0, we barreled across the Brooklyn Bridge for the next kickoff.
Serbia vs. Ghana at 10 a.m. in the Meytex Cafe in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, where the proprietor, wearing a yellow Ghana jersey, served fried chicken with rice and plantains. Joyous fans danced on Flatbush Avenue following the 1-0 Ghana victory.
Germany vs. Australia at 2:30 p.m. at Sheep Station in Park Slope, where we did justice to the fish and chips. Germany won, 4-0, and George chatted knowledgeably with a few German architects who had an office nearby.
Although all three establishments from our 2010 jaunt have since closed, New York has never had more venues to watch soccer.
I am working out my itinerary for this World Cup, but I will surely visit my home away from home, Foley’s, the Irish baseball pub on West 33rd Street in Manhattan.
“We are a little disappointed as neither Ireland nor the U.S. qualified, and also the times of the games will make it hard for us as we don’t open till 10,” the owner, Shaun Clancy, wrote in an email.
One note of reassurance: You are not likely to encounter the stereotypical soccer “hooligans.” World Cup fans in New York live and work here, or are good tourists, and they are not likely to tear down the joint.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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