Friday, June 23, 2006

"These men aren't drunk, it's only 9 in the morning ..."

From: Los Angeles Daily News

STUDIO CITY - Early morning on a workday seems an odd time for a bunch of Yankees to be watching soccer in a British pub.

But that was the case Thursday at The Fox and Hounds, where about 100 Angelenos arrived before - or instead of - work to watch the U.S. soccer team take on Ghana in a World Cup must-win match for both. It was a reminder that futbol may not be football in the United States, but for at least one month every four years, it attracts a crowd.

"I could watch it at home, but you don't get the shared excitement and the shared pain," said Tommy Mack, 36, of Toluca Lake. "Besides, I don't have Guinness on tap."

The Fox and Hounds and the White Harte pub in Woodland Hills, with the same owner, have been busy in the first round of the World Cup, opening the doors at 5:30 a.m.

When the U.S.-Ghana game started and ESPN broke away to a live shot of fans watching in New York's Times Square, the crowd there was smaller than that inside the Studio City pub.

"Futbol doesn't exist here, and yet you go to places like this and it does, but it's sort of a hush-hush, under-the-table existence," said owner Gary Richards, who made about $2,000 in sales during the morning game.

Many of the early-morning patrons showed up in sports coat and ties, en route to the office. Others had phoned in sick and wore soccer jackets and jerseys.

"I took the day off because I will either: a) be so ecstatic that I keep drinking until I pass out, or b) be in such a funk that I would hit people with my fist," Mack said.

The funk began in the 22nd minute, when Ghana took the lead after stripping the ball from U.S. captain Claudia Reyna. He fell down, holding an ankle, as players like to do after they get beat.

There was much booing in the pub.

"Reyna should have retired after that goal. He's too old," said Dave Zierler, 31, of Santa Monica, watching the game before heading to work at Universal Music.

Zierler and many others wondered just where the U.S. team's underrated opponents came from. "Ghana? I think it's somewhere in Africa. I don't think anyone knows where it is," Zierler said.

Ghana - whose team was ranked 48th by FIFA before it shocked the second-ranked Czech Republic on Saturday - is in western Africa, between Ivory Coast and Togo. This is Ghana's first World Cup competition.

At 7:43 a.m., seven minutes before halftime, U.S. midfielder Clinton Dempsey volleyed a point-blank bullet into the left corner, and the pub erupted.

To advance, the United States needed Italy to beat the Czech Republic in a game being played simultaneously. Bar TVs showed Italy up 1-0. Americans were starting to believe.

But three minutes later, hope was fleeting.


"That's a horrible call!"

U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu had just jumped into the air for a head-ball, barely making contact with a Ghana forward. But the referee blew his whistle and awarded the Africans a penalty kick. The result: 2-1, Ghana.

"It is astonishing that, at this height of the game, the officiating is so disastrous," Dan Loney said.

The second half began slowly. Emotion at the bar was muted. "This is ridiculous; I can't stand watching this. They are flat-footed," said Jason Cook, a "Days of Our Lives" actor and midfielder for the Conejo Valley United Soccer Club.

But then the United States turned up the pressure. There were rolling roars of excitement between the 65th and 68th minutes, when the U.S. had three promising shots on goal.

That was as close as the U.S. team got. At 8:50 a.m., with five minutes left and work fast approaching for many, people started slipping out. "Bottom line: We blew it," Mack said.

After the ref sounded the final whistle, Moses Atangana busted open the bar door - his world going from dark to bright - and offered some unexpected jubilation.

"We did it! We won!" said Atangana, a Ghana fan who said he long ago played for the national soccer team of his native Cameroon.

Inside the pub, Eddie Francoeur, 31, of North Hollywood sat at the bar, mourning with friends and his fourth pint of Carlsberg beer.

Francouer skipped work Thursday after calling in sick - which he truly may have been after the U.S. loss.

"I'm going to be here until they kick me out tonight," he said. "I'm going to drink heavily until we qualify for the next World Cup."