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Soccer Wars

It's never too early for England versus Argentina.

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It's standing room only at Ginger's Ale House. That's not unusual for this neighborhood pub at the corner of Ashland and Grace but for two reasons: the place is packed with singing Brits and it's 6:30 on a Friday morning. The banner hanging outside proclaims this "Soccer World Cup Headquarters." Inside, ten TV screens beam live from the soccer stadium in Sapporo, Japan, where England will shortly kick off against Argentina.

I squeeze myself into a bit of floor space somewhere in the middle of the pub where there's a decent view of the giant projection TV screen that fills the back wall. All around me are the red shirts and the white shirts of England. To my right I hear a few American accents, but they too are dressed in England's colors. Almost everyone is. Near the entrance stands a single man wearing the blue and white of Argentina. The bravest man in the world? I chalk it up to English irony.

The pub buzzes with chatter and there's the odd shout of "Come on, England." One guy in front of me bites his nails obsessively. His companion shifts his weight from one foot to the other, like a shy dancer. "Whadya reckon?" I ask him. "I don't know, mate. We looked shite against Sweden. Argentina are quality. I'm hoping we can get a draw. Come on, England!" He pumps his fists. From somewhere in the pub comes a reply. Ing-el-end! Ing-el-end!

A waitress pushes past holding a coffeepot above her head. It's too early to serve alcohol, and nail-biter remarks to weight-shifter that coffee and soccer don't seem quite the right combination. But we're lucky to be watching the game live at the pub at all. The time difference between Chicago and Japan and South Korea means most World Cup games kick off in the middle of our night. It's been a bit of a headache for proprietors Jamie Hale and Tony Griffin, who can't serve alcohol between 2 and 7 AM. No alcohol, no point.

Hale, originally from Gloucester in England, and Griffin, from Dublin, have worked hard to promote Ginger's Ale House as a "soccer pub"--their words--since taking it over 12 years ago. The English premier league, the Scottish first division, and European cup games are all shown live, as are Chicago Fire games when they're televised. The pub also provides bus service to all Fire home games and sponsors 16 local soccer teams.

Griffin admits he's not much of a soccer fan himself. "I like the craic, but it's not that important to me." When Hale asks him, he half-jokingly estimates the number of players on a team at 12. Hale's the soccer nut, though he's stopped playing after two operations for torn cruciate ligaments--"at $15,000 a shot I just can't afford it." He has the three lions--which are the English royal symbol and the team logo--tattooed on his chest exactly where they appear on the team shirts, and he's stayed up for every World Cup game so far. He's bitterly disappointed at not being able to screen every game live at the pub (those that aren't shown live can be seen in full the following day), and it's not about the lost business either. "You have to watch the games live, and there's nowhere better than down the pub."

The England-Argentina game is one that can be watched as it happens. It's a classic encounter, and as is not uncommon in soccer, there's more at stake than the game. Soccer, after all, may be the only sport that can claim to have started a war, the four-day conflict between Honduras and El Salvador prompted in 1969 by an acrimonious game that El Salvador won by a goal. (There were other issues, but the event is remembered as the soccer war.)

War is on people's minds today. Twenty years ago England won the Falklands from Argentina, but Argentina has triumphed on the soccer pitch ever since, and always in controversial circumstances. The Maradona "hand of God" goal of '86, the Beckham red card of '98--two scars on the psyche of English soccer.

It's a history reflected in the faces of England's fans at Ginger's this Friday morning, and on no face more than Hale's. A veteran of the royal navy, he fought in the Falklands, his ship, HMS Ambuscade, providing cover for the first British troops at Port San Carlos. Later this month he'll be back in England for the official commemoration of the war, and that's where he'll watch the World Cup final.

Kickoff! One flag-draped fan at the bar puts his hands together, palm to palm, and closes his eyes in prayer. It's his ritual as any England game begins, he'll tell me later. The singing starts--Ing-el-end, Ing-el-end, Ing-el-end--but is rudely interrupted as England immediately gives the ball away. Tossers! someone cries from the back. "Come on, England!" weight-shifter intones in front of me. The singing resumes.

There must be close to a hundred people here. The chanting becomes deafening, rattling the paper Irish flags behind the bar and the English flags on the opposite wall. But things quiet a bit as the game settles into its rhythm. Nail-biter resumes his gnawing, which grows more intense as Argentina starts the stronger. Anytime an Argentine player touches the ball he's greeted with a cry of Wanker! But some England players get an equally rough treatment from fans. An injury forces a substitution that dismays many in the pub. "Oh no, we're bringing on Sinclair," exclaims someone behind me. Ironic cheers greet the newcomer. Weight-shifter looks back at me as if to say "That's it, it's all over." Trevor Sinclair, the left midfielder greeted with such scorn, was a third choice for the position he is about to fill, and if not for injuries would not even have made the England squad. He is the substitute for a substitute. It is a point strongly made by the English companion to the two American England supporters at the table to my right. But to general surprise, Sinclair's presence seems to change the game. England begins to dominate. And in the final minute of the first half, domination pays off.

"Penalty! It's a fucking penalty! Yes!" The whole bar is on its feet, celebrating. But England hasn't scored yet, and while a penalty kick often means a goal, England has a terrible record with them. They lost the 1990 World Cup semifinal against Germany in a shoot-out, ditto the 1996 European Championship semifinal. And in '98, England went out the same way in the World Cup quarterfinals, this time against Argentina. To make matters worse, the player taking the kick is captain David Beckham, widely considered responsible for causing that loss with a stupid foul that brought a red card.

The flag-draped fan at the bar has his hands together again and his eyes shut tight. Beside him, two other fans cover their eyes. The pub has fallen silent, and the voice of the TV commentator can be heard for the first time. All around me, people are looking at their feet, their hands, the wall, anywhere but at the screen.

Beckham scores. Pandemonium. Everyone is on his feet and shouting. Beckham! The singing resumes, and the crowd takes as much pleasure from the fourth slow-mo repeat of the goal as it did from the first. There is joy all around. But near the entrance the exception stands out, the customer wearing the blue-and-white shirt of Argentina. There is absolutely nothing ironic about him. He's the bravest man in the world, an Argentine fan in the lion's den.

The second half seems to go on forever, though it helps that beer is being served now. A one-goal lead against one of the best teams in the world is terrifying to endure. Loud swearing crescendos. One fan later will tell me that he spent the last 20 minutes in the toilet, unable to watch. Many rooted to the spot bury their eyes in their hands. But England hangs on for a one-nil win, and the singing doesn't stop for ten minutes.

"I can't believe it." This is Hale, the color back in his face, as he puts on a CD of English anthems. The speakers blurt Purcell, Britten, Queen. The chatter is brisk and excited, but slowly the day intrudes. It's not yet nine in the morning and grudgingly some leave for work. But many stay, basking in the moment.

Too late I remember and turn around, but the bravest man in the world has left the building. But not without leaving a gift. Ginger's Ale House now sports a brand-new addition to its Irish and English flags. Next to the giant screen hangs a blue-and-white Argentina shirt. On it, in Hale's slightly shaky hand, is written a score, 1-0, and the name Beckham.

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