WASHINGTON — 7 a.m.: The alarm goes off. Nope. Snooze button.
7:09 a.m.: Ugh, seriously, who decided on nine-minute snoozes? Who decided to have the World Cup halfway around the world, so the first round of games start at 8 a.m. on a Saturday? And who is actually up and out watching them?
7:18 a.m.: Alright, alright, I’m up. Game 1 of the day: Belgium-Tunisia. Unfortunately, the Embassy of Tunisia wasn’t sponsoring any events, and we couldn’t find a local Tunisian watch party hub. But Belga Café on Barracks Row committed to opening bright and early, so that’s where the day begins.
8:08 a.m.: The doors are open, with several tables seated and a half-full bar. And yes, Belgium has already scored, on an Eden Hazard penalty kick in the sixth minute, a harbinger of things to come.
8:34 a.m.: Seated around the back of a round six-top, three friends have been in their seats since kickoff. Two have no particular connection to Belgium, except their friendship with Aude Broos, a Belgian-born New Yorker in town for the weekend who spearheaded the early-morning outing. Half the expected crew is still asleep.
“I knew I was going to be in D.C. for this game,” said Broos. “So like a week ago I called Sahil, and made a reservation, and tried to convince everyone to wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning to come and watch the game.”
Sahil Rahman is the co-founder of Rasa Indian Grill in Navy Yard. He’s not a huge soccer fan, but has been getting into the spirit of the World Cup despite having no dog in the fight.
“It’s just such an exciting time,” he said. “I feel like it brings people from around the world together, regardless of who you’re cheering for.”
For Washingtonian Annika Erickson-Pearson, that experience is a novel one since moving to D.C. from Colorado.
“There’s one bar where everybody goes to watch everything in the town where I’m from,” she said. “So to be able to go to different bars, and be around different communities and fan bases is really fun and really energizing.”
Speaking of, it’s time to move on. Belgium is blowing the doors off Tunisia, eventually winning 5-2 in the highest-scoring game of the competition so far.
10:29 a.m.: After a jaunt on the blue line and a stroll through downtown, I’m one of a steady trickle of people filing into The Lucky Bar in Dupont Circle for the middle game of the day, Mexico-Korea. Even as the place fills up, with a strong contingent of green-clad El Tri supporters, it becomes clear that South Korea’s support is scant. Tom Sin knew he’d be outnumbered, but that didn’t dissuade him from driving in all the way from Tysons.
“Given how Korea played (in their first game), as a Korean fan, I knew that we weren’t going to come out and support our team. So for me, I knew it was more important to come out to a place where, I wanted to be fearless,” he said.
Sin was born in South Korea and moved to the D.C. area as a teenager. He had what he described as a typical Korean-American experience — his parents owned a deli in D.C., he studied IT at George Mason. He remembers the 2010 World Cup, when Korea had a strong team, and the same bar was packed with 70 percent Korea supporters for a match against Greece. He knows it’s an uphill battle in this competition, but felt that showing up was important.
“I’m Korean, I’m very proud. And I just think it’s my part to root for the team, independent of the results,” he said.
11:27 a.m.: Mexico draws a penalty kick and converts. The crowd goes wild. Chants of “Me-xi-co” (pronounced Meh-hee-coh) ring out across the bar.
Mexico 1-0 Korea pic.twitter.com/PBTPhmMEgP
— Noah Frank (@NoahFrankWTOP) June 23, 2018
11:51 a.m.: Mexico leads 1-0 at the half. Around the pool table in one corner, every shirt is green. One belongs to Omar Valdez, a Mexican-born New Yorker, in for the weekend to visit his girlfriend Rachel Gottesfeld and his half-Argentinian buddy Burt Lopez and to watch El Tri.
“My friend here is adopted Mexican. My girlfriend here is adopted Mexican, too,” said Valdez. “It’s the World Cup … we’re world citizens.”
They are, the three of them, all big soccer fans, from the club game to the international one. They’re off to another bar for the Sweden-Germany game later in the afternoon.
“The World Cup is transcending borders, and Washington has so many fantastic spots (to watch games),” said Gottesfeld. “I think that Washingtonians are much friendlier and more open than in New York. New York has a lot of places, but Washington is more open-armed. It’s so easy to meet people.”
Valdez has been coming to The Lucky Bar for years to watch the game.
“This is really the best thing about football, right?” he said. “You can see here there is a strong Mexican presence, but there are a bunch of neutrals who are not rooting for Korea, but are really just here to enjoy this spectacle.”
Aside from the fierce on-field rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico, it’s been a particularly tense geopolitical period between the nations in the week leading into the game. But you’d never know it by the atmosphere at the bar.
“Aside from politics, this is who we truly are — human beings enjoying soccer and sport and just being ourselves,” said Valdez.
12:08 p.m.: A quick skip across town lands me at Taco Bamba for the second half. The bar half of the Chinatown restaurant is full of viewers parked out for the game, but is remarkably subdued compared to the dark confines of The Lucky Bar. The only real pop comes in the 66th minute, as Chicharito picks up a pass on the break, dekes a defender, and tucks an insurance goal past the helpless keeper. I realize I haven’t eaten all day, so I recharge with a couple of tacos, including the Amaras Taco — beef tendon, chorizo larb, serrano, mint and basil, created by D.C. chef Erik Bruner-Yang. It’s not exactly Mexican-Korean fusion, but it’s delicious. It’s also time to move on.
1:41 p.m.: I’m en route to my next destination when I pass the Latvia 100 celebration in the middle of Dupont Circle. Latvia’s not even in the World Cup, but it’s a reminder of just how many international event take place around this city even without the world’s largest sporting event.
1:55 p.m.: With five minutes to kick, there’s a line out the gate at the Swedish Residence Garden, where the Scandinavian hosts have partnered with the German embassy and DC Stoddert to host a giant, outdoor watch party. Thankfully, the forecast rain is holding off, and the prospect of thunderstorms hasn’t dissuaded anyone from attending. After posting free tickets earlier in the week, they had to cut off distribution — 1,300 people RSVPd.
2:23 p.m.: Monica Enqvist is the press counselor for the Embassy of Sweden and organized the event. There are free cookies and face-painting on her side, free pretzels and beer under the German tent.
“We felt it’s important to show in times like these that we stand together and can have a good game, and wanted to do this game together,” she said.
Sweden isn’t a favorite to advance, so this will likely be the only event the Embassy sponsors this summer. But Enqvist is already looking ahead to next year.
“We definitely will do an event next summer when it’s the Women’s World Cup,” she said. “It’s really important for us to show that we support our women, and they are really good soccer players who did really well the last tournament.”
2:34 p.m.: Sweden scores, and it’s no cheap goal, as Ola Toivonen flicks one past the keeper to put Germany up against it. Will the defending champs get slipped up in the group stage? There’s only one place to watch the finish…
There are more Germans here. But the Swedes are down front, celebrating a 1-0 lead pic.twitter.com/sLv6cIHI1w
— Noah Frank (@NoahFrankWTOP) June 23, 2018
3:08 p.m.: After narrowly missing a nasty accident, I’ve arrived at Biergarten Haus on H Street NE, which is running one-in-one-out and is packed with 400-some-odd fans, nearly all of them pulling for Germany. They’ve already pulled level at 1-1 by the time I reach the giant, second-level deck out back.
3:41 p.m.: Already missing one star defender due to injury, Germany sees Jerome Boateng sent off in the 82nd minute for a second yellow card, and will have to finish the game with 10 men. Prospects seem grim, but the chanting only ramps up.
3:54 p.m.: Absolute pandemonium. Down to the fifth and final minute of stoppage time, Germany gets a free kick just outside the left edge of the box and pulls off a miracle. It’s a brilliant tactical move — Toni Kroos takes the free kick and just nudges it, maybe 10 feet to teammate Marco Reus, who stops it, setting it up once again for Kroos with a brand-new angle, and no human wall of Swedes between him and the net. The finish is exquisite, curling into the top right corner over the outstretched leap of the keeper. One fan charges quite literally through me up the stairs, nearly knocking me over. The celebration hasn’t stopped when the three whistles blow — Germany survives.
4:06 p.m.: His voice nearly gone from screaming, adorned in full regalia, including a helmet, Stephan Hoffmann is exhausted. Born in East Germany, 45 minutes outside Berlin, he’s lived in the states since 1995 and has been coming to Biergarten Haus since it opened. Everyone at his table for this game he met watching the 2010 World Cup, right here. In the meantime, they’ve had families, some with kids in tow. They return each World Cup to watch together, but that’s literally the only time they hang out together.
“We keep in touch, but I don’t remember if we’ve ever gotten together (elsewhere),” said Hoffman. “We don’t see each other for four years, then four years later we all meet here.”
Another native German, Melanie Brandenburg was a later addition to the group, as a fellow Hamburg supporter. She’s still glowing from the incredible result.
“Oh, I lost like five years, at least, off my life,” she said.
There’s a good reason you may not associate such proud displays of patriotism with German fans. It’s something Brandenburg understands all too well, but that she’s happy to see come out every four years.
“We are not very proud, like not a very proud country, after World War II,” she said. “So the only time we are patriotic is during World Cups or Euro Cups. That’s the only time Germans really wave their flag and are cheering and are proud to be German. So it’s important.”
4:15 p.m.: The day is done. Plenty of delirious fans still linger, but the action is over for today. Tomorrow, six more countries will play, and all over D.C., descendants, immigrants, expats, friends, spouses, and just plain, old soccer lovers will congregate to cheer once again. Wherever you go, whoever you talk to, you’ll find interesting stories of why they’re there and what it means to them. I can’t recommend it enough.