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Thursday, June 28, 2018
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Match Day 15 is the final day of the group stage. Good, because I've maxed out my data plan, I'm neglecting my wife and kids, and my inbox is overflowing with banter.

Before we take a one-day break from The Banter on Friday to prepare for the round of 16, I wanted to share a few of the stories you've shared with me about your World Cup experiences  and more drinks recommendations for England vs. Belgium today. 

So enjoy Andrew Silver's journal from his fourth consecutive World Cup, and Andrew Skola's dispatch from "México del norte," where he met dozens of newly minted South Korea fans for Qatar 2022. Even if your name isn't Andrew, I would love to hear your stories, so email me: jeffrey.marcus@jointhebanter.com.

Also...

  • Germany's exit is shocking, but maybe not surprising; Watch my interview on Cheddar TV
  • England and Belgium duel for the top spot in Group G
  • In Group H, Japan tries to be the only Asian team to advance
  • And Senegal aims to be the lone African representative
  • Colombia could be the fourth South American team in the round of 16

One day in Russia for the World Cup

By Andrew Silver

It was hot, loud and crowded aboard the Moscow subway, and the carriage was shaking. The car behind mine was teeming with jumping, singing Belgian soccer fans heading to the same place I was — Спартак, or Spartak Stadium.

I was in Russia. At the World Cup. For the weekend.

I had been to the last three tournaments in Germany, South Africa and Brazil, and as an obsessive soccer fan, I didn’t want to miss my fourth consecutive World Cup, even though I have a 3-year-old daughter at home and my wife is due in seven weeks with our second.

I started planning months ago to make the trip work, which meant minimizing my time away from home. I found direct flights from New York on a weekend when a first-round game was scheduled in Moscow. At the time I bought my ticket, it was listed as Match 29 with seeds G1 vs. G3. A month later I learned I would see Belgium play Tunisia.

The flight to Russia was easy, and once on the ground I found a similar FIFA World Cup experience as the last three I attended — with lots of generic soccer-event branding.

Throngs of fans were milling around FIFA tents installed in the middle of tourist attractions like Red Square. I read that public gatherings like this are new to Russia, but it seemed pretty normal for the World Cup. I counted fans from 26 of the 32 teams proudly sporting their country’s swag. My unscientific survey found, surprisingly, that Peruvians were all over the place.

On match day, I encountered a group of singing Tunisia supporters at a cafe along Nikolskaya Street near Red Square. Another World Cup fan captured it on video, and the tune was stuck in my sleep-deprived head the whole trip.

Their spirit reminded me, sadly, that my team was not here. The best part of my previous World Cup experiences was painting my face red, white and blue, wearing the flag, singing songs and drinking with my compatriots. Traveling solo, with no U.S. team in the World Cup, was a very different experience.

The singing Tunisians and raucous Belgians aboard my subway to the stadium really made me miss having my own team in the tournament.

It was easier to get to Spartak Stadium in Moscow than it was to trek to Recife for the United States match with Germany in 2014. When I arrived at the stadium, I was greeted by an 80-foot statue of the Roman gladiator Spartacus, but it seemed very Soviet.

Inside the stadium, in section C108, I was surrounded by other single, seemingly lonely fans. We all wore our official Fan IDs around our necks. (The credentials doubled as our Russian entry visas.)

Belgians dominated the crowd, with a smaller Tunisian contingent; intermittently, loud RUSS-EE-YA chants broke out around the stadium.

I sat with Denis, who was cheering for Belgium and was streaming the game on his phone. I was a little jealous of his data plan. In the VAR era, it’s annoying not to be able to see multiple angles of the play. Kevin, who sat on my other side, was not cheering for either team, and he didn’t seem to care very much about the match. He actually dozed off late in the first half. 

He missed a lively if not very competitive game: Belgium won 5-2, with goals scored in flurries. (Watch the highlights.) Three of the Belgium goals — and what seemed like two dozen near-misses by Michy Batshuayi — were scored at our end.

After the game, I headed to back to my hotel, grabbed a meal at a Turkish restaurant and watched Mexico-South Korea. Then I had to try Russian vodka, so I found a wine bar that was also showing Germany-Sweden.

Full of food, vodka and soccer, I repacked my measly backpack with an official World Cup program for myself, an authentic “Russian gingerbread” snack from the stadium concessions for my foodie brother, and a stuffed Zabivaka, the World Cup mascot, for my daughter.

I headed back to Brooklyn just 50 hours after I’d left — less than two months before our daughter is due and only 30 months before kickoff in Qatar. 

Andrew works at Huge, a digital agency. He lives in Brooklyn with his family and roots for Liverpool.

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Dispatch from México del norte


By Andrew Skola

The crowd outside the bar was growing as more fans wearing green, white and red jerseys huddled in the shade to hide from the 90-plus degree heat. Texas at 8:30 a.m. = sweltering.  

But this was a very Dallas World Cup watch party. There was valet parking and a shade tent to wait under. 

The well-heeled crowd included couples with a few children and babies in tow, hipsters, and a few late-going-into-work professionals. They all packed into Happiest Hour, a trendy bar on the edge of the Victory Park.

I’m talking high heels. Expensive jeans. Children in sombreros riding in SUV-type strollers. The four women at the table behind me had matching Louis Vuitton bags.

There were other, perhaps less polished joints to down Tecates and cheer on El Tri against Sweden, like the packed Ojo Locos Sports Cantina and other fine establishments on the fringes of Northwest Highway. On a different day, I might have been watching somewhere else, with a different crowd.  

There’s no monolithic Mexican population in Texas, or anywhere. There’s money, new and old. Working class. Middle class. First generation, second, third, fourth — who’s still counting?

A green El Tri jersey means the same thing as a jersey anywhere: pride in your team and the inescapable worry that it’s always one kick short of its soccer potential.

On Wednesday, Happiest Hour was packed. The shaded patio and indoor tables and barstools filled up early. Si se puede! We ordered mimosas and cocktails and craft beers and salads and wings, but sadly no brunch, no huevos rancheros.

The TVs were all tuned to the Mexico game. My neighbor at the bar streamed the South Korea-Germany game on his phone, propping it against his girlfriend’s handbag.

El Tri started slow, gave up a few too many chances and picked it up right before halftime. The crowd was cheering but nervous. When Sweden scored first – silencia. After their second, a penalty kick, and their third, an own goal – muerte.  

Not all of us were die-hards. This being Dallas, when the game was out of reach, another guy at the bar (he was from Nepal, and wearing a Brazil jersey) started to tell me about some real estate deals — 8 to 11 percent returns! — and the condos he and his partner kept in Las Vegas and Miami for networking with clients. He left when it the score was 2-0.

The bar switched the TVs to the South Korea-Germany game, as that held more interest for those of us concerned about Mexico’s future.

The bar crowd started chanting, low at first, stronger as six minutes of added time was announced: Koh-ree-AH, Koh-ree-AH!

When the South Koreans scored, you would have thought it was Luis Hernandez scoring for Mexico (down to 10 men) to tie the Netherlands in the 94th minute of the final Group E match of the 1998 World Cup.

I got a bear hug from my barmate, who shook me for a good five seconds even before the video assistant referee confirmed the goal counted. When South Korea scored an empty-netter, we all celebrated.

The whole ordeal felt strangely familiar: unexpectedly strong performances against hyped opponents early in the first round, before our heroes stumble badly in a pivotal game against a beatable opponent. But wait — the South Koreans came through.

Yup, it was 2002 all over again, but this time America’s team was wearing green. Concacaf owes a debt of gratitude to South Korea.

#WorldCupS: England vs. Belgium, the Ales Derby

By Tammy Kennon and Chip Sellarole

England and Belgium are known for their master beer brewing, but golly gumdrops, how do they take the same four ingredients and make such wildly different products? We’re talking about beer, not soccer.

For England, we’re drinking Samuel Smith's.

It’s not easy to choose the most English beer, but we settled on Samuel Smith's because it’s one of the few remaining independently owned breweries.

Besides being the oldest brewery in Yorkshire, the expert brewers have nailed a wide range of styles, in a distinctly British fashion. Iconic indeed, and this, we’re told, is maybe a little bit like the English soccer team.

Samuel Smith's has been brewing in what The Guardian called "the friendly little market town of Tadcaster," using the same copper boiling kettles since before a bunch of cheeky colonists decided they didn’t want to pay their taxes without a say in how Georgie boy was going to spend them.

The brewery puts the old in old school with its traditional practices, like reusing the yeast and delivering beer to local pubs in Shire horse-drawn wagons. Charming. And the brewery conditions so much beer in oak barrels, it keeps two full-time coopers on staff.

It was British brewers who created the India Pale Ale style in the 1700s, but Sam Smith’s IPA is lean, crisp, low(ish) alcohol and slightly hoppy, just as it was created more than 200 years ago. It is decidedly not the hopped-up (see what we did there?) American craft IPA pushed to the edge of quaffability.

Sam Smith’s is quite British — proper, traditional, lighthearted and wholly lovable.

Belgium has us drinking Chimay, from cool glasses.

Give those same ingredients to Trappist monks and what happens? Kapow! Colorful, high alcohol, heavy-bodied, powerfully aromatic — a religious experience.

The Trappist brewing tradition began in the Middle Ages, and since the 1600s, it’s been governed by rules that haven’t always been followed.

To bear the Trappist moniker today, beer must be brewed by monks at their monastery, and beyond basic support of the monastery, proceeds must be donated to charity. There are 11 Trappist breweries, six in Belgium.

We chose Chimay as Belgium’s iconic ale, because:

  1. It’s consistently awesome.

  2. It comes in all three Trappist styles: single (red label), double (white label) and triple (blue label).

  3. You can get it pretty easily.

  4. And as with every Belgian beer, it has its own kick-ass glass.

Chimay is brewed in Scourmont Abbey, in Belgium’s Chimay municipality near the northern border with France. The monks preach ethics, promote responsible consumption and use 100-percent natural ingredients, so we also get to feel righteous when we drink it. Prost!

As these drinks advance into the #WorldCupS round of 16, help us choose which beer we’ll be drinking through the knockout rounds. Shout at us on Twitter: @TammyKennon@ChipSellarole and @jeffdmarcus.

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The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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