The first week of the World Cup is normally considered a warm-up for the monthlong tournament. It allows both the favored teams time to develop their rhythm, and it offers at least one plucky underdog the chance to pull off an upset that its supporters can feast on for decades to come.
Fans have come to expect a slow first week. It means you can be selective about which games you watch—there’s over 90 hours of televised soccer to choose from during this competition—and that becomes even more important when the games are played in the middle of the night.
This time around, however, someone forgot to tell the players about this status quo. In the first five days, Portugal capitulated to the United States, Germany put itself in a spot by only drawing with Ireland, and most shocking of all, defending champion and joint favorite France lost its opener to Senegal.
So, it was with a mix of fatigue and exhilaration that I left my house in Brooklyn this morning to watch France’s second match against Uruguay at a neighborhood bistro, Bar Tabac.
Inside the restaurant, the mood was upbeat and downright civilized after yesterday’s 5 a.m. testosterone-fest at Nathan Hale’s. The owner, Jacques, ran to get fresh croissants from the French bakery down the street while his local clientele took turns manning the espresso machine. Despite last Friday’s hiccup, everyone expected France to show its mettle this time around. I took a seat near the bar and let the chants of “Allez les Bleu,” carried on a magic carpet of thick cigarette smoke, waft over me.
The French team started well, passing the ball with precision and élan, and though their star player Zinedine Zidane (known as Zizou to the faithful) was injured, midfielder Patrick Vieira and silky-smooth striker Thierry Henry looked like they had the measure of a lesser Uruguay side.
Then, in the 25th minute, disaster struck. Henry was sent off for a bad tackle. Now France would have to play with only 10 men.
To my left a little boy named Zac, with curly black hair and dressed in an oversize French Zidane jersey, sat in silent horror as his more vocal father threw a few choice words at the television. Sitting next to me, Christophe, one of Bar Tabac’s partners, kept muttering “Stupid, stupid. Henry didn’t have to do that.” This wasn’t the local French joie de vivre that my neighborhood has lately become famous for.
Over the last four years, the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens have undergone a revolution. For decades they were home to Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants who built bakeries and social clubs and a gritty blue-collar Brooklyn identity. All of that changed with the arrival of a new immigrant wave—a Manhattan flight led by thousands of young professionals who wanted to escape exorbitant rents and find a gentler urban environment to raise kids. In no time, a trendy and very French-flavored restaurant and bar scene sprang up on Smith Street—a thoroughfare once considered a no-go zone by most Manhattanites.
“It’s like a French connection here,” said Christophe, who has lived in Carroll Gardens for six years, explaining how many of his compatriots have recently been attracted to the close-knit community in this leafy brownstone neighborhood. “It has this energy and good atmosphere,” he said. “The stress is all in Manhattan. We come back here to relax.”
Not this morning. Christophe, for one, was looking decidedly worried as the second half wore on and France was rebuffed again and again. The small group of fans at Bar Tabac was screaming at the television while squirming in their seats and nibbling their nails. I too found myself caught up in the nervy atmosphere. Surely France, who play some of the sweetest soccer around, weren’t going to lose? The only one who seemed happy was an Italian man. “You’re supporting France today,” he asked. “Why on earth would you do that?”
I had no good explanation. Maybe I just didn’t want Zac to see his team fail. I remember how I felt as a kid when I saw my sporting heroes lose for the first time. I cried my eyes out in disbelief.
France was peppering the Uruguay goal but just couldn’t score. Then, in the last minute, Uruguay counter-attacked and only a great save from the French goalie saved la France. The final whistle blew and the score remained 0-0. France was alive but only just. Now they would have to win their final group game by two clear goals to stand a chance of advancing.
“Don’t worry, you’ll win next time,” I told the little boy with blind optimism. Behind me, the Italian man was also upbeat. “Ha, soon you will all have to support Italy,” he announced triumphantly.