In my time chasing global soccer around the city as a fan, journalist, player, and student, I’ve seen septuagenarian Spanish men spill glasses of rioja on their bemused wives as they jumped on tables at a member’s only social club in Astoria, Ivorian cooks emerge teary-eyed from behind Harlem kitchens after a Yaya Touré belter, Argentinean fans in Elmhurst dance en masse while twirling umbrellas and singing at the top of their lungs, and Algerian supporters block traffic on Steinway Street while blasting Khaled out of flag-adorned SUV’s—to the chagrin of their Egyptian neighbors.
A yellow-clad woman kissed me at a Brazilian nightclub seconds after Il Fenomeno Ronaldo’s 79th minute winner during the 2002 World Cup final. Her rather intimidating-looking significant other, who I had been standing next to all match, shrugged as he victoriously fist-pumped at the heavens. This made perfect sense to all three of us at the time. I’ve seen high-ranking UN diplomats blow off important Security Council meetings to watch their teams play against each other. I have seen atheists turn deeply religious and back again during three minute stoppage time periods. I once saw a Senegalese Imam high-five early morning beer-drinkers on east 116th Street after Papa Bouba Diop’s stunner against France. I have witnessed so many contrasting emotions and mood swings played out over multiple 90-minute periods watching international soccer in NYC that they could warrant their own section in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
I have also seen firsthand what historian Eric Hobsbawm meant when he said that “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” Watching their national teams play, immigrant communities in NYC not only feel an acute connection to home, but also a sense of pride that their existence is recognized, albeit for a fleeting moment, both on the international and local stages.
“We are not a big country, but watching Croatia play here in Queens, in the center of the Croatian community abroad, means so much to us,” Tomislav Bistre, a waiter at Rudar Soccer Club in Long Island City, told me one recent afternoon as he plied me with grilled baby squid and shots of Croatian bitter liquor. “Watching Croatia during the World Cup or the Euros, especially around here, where we are all away from home, really brings out our national pride. We wear our heart on our sleeve and when we win, we go crazy. When we lose, we also go crazy and sometimes we get a bad name here for that, but it’s our passion,” he says.
The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.
Rudar is a social club that was founded by a group of Croatian soccer-playing immigrants who came to Queens from a small coal-mining town called Labin on the Istrian coast. In 1977, club members pooled their money together and bought an old warehouse, transforming it into a restaurant/bar/team clubhouse that is equally welcoming to anyone who is just interested in a taste of Istrian cuisine. With the impending purchase of an additional flat screen TV, Rudar will be the place to catch Croatia’s Group A matches, including the tournament opener on June 12th against Brazil, whose own immigrant community in NYC is centered only a few blocks up the street. “It’s gonna be crazy around here for the opener against Brazil. I can’t wait,” Bistre he said. A pair of dapperly-dressed middle aged club members sipping Croatian beers at the next table nodded in unison.
Across the East River, Harlem and the Bronx have seen a large influx of West African-born immigrants in recent years and soccer has been an integral factor in their transition to life in New York City. West African players have helped make F.C. Harlem one of the strongest youth programs in the area and have also benefited from the non-profit club’s supplementary leadership and educational programs. Similarly, increases in West African migratory flows to Harlem and the Bronx—and the extremely gifted soccer talent pool this has brought with it—have been a key factor in Martin Luther King High School’s total domination of prep soccer in the city.
MLK has now won 14 of the last 17 NYC Public School Athletic League titles, is regularly ranked nationally, and has produced scores of NCAA Division I college players, as well as ten current professional players, including Senegalese national team goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul, who left Dakar for the Bronx at age 14. Many of MLK’s star players during its ascendancy have hailed from countries such as Liberia, Senegal, Guinea, Cameroon, and Côte d’Ivoire. Their playing ability is turning Harlem and the Bronx into New York’s de facto soccer Mecca, while the nearby restaurants, barber shops, and grocery stores also provide essential spaces for the wider West African community to connect and root for national teams away from home.
An hour before the start of Côte d’Ivoire’s recent international friendly against Belgium, off-duty cabbies were already double parked up the block outside of New Ivoire on 119th Street in Harlem. New Ivoire is a 24-hour restaurant that is owned by Ivorian taxi drivers who wanted to create a social space where the growing number of Ivorian expatriates uptown could have their national food, catch up on news and politics back home, and, of course, cheer on Les Elephants on match days.