When it comes to watching the World Cup, Brit's Pub is king. There's no getting around it. The downtown Minneapolis bar has the giant rooftop, the JumboTron and that English attitude -- which means they know their soccer. (Or football. Whatever you want to call it.)
But this multilevel complex isn't the only bar brimming with World Cup fever. On E. Lake Street, Merlins Rest has been opening early for big games. The Ethiopian restaurant the Blue Nile just added six more flat-screen TVs in hopes of attracting fans for the final two weeks of competition. At La Belle Vie, mixology wizard Johnny Michaels has created a World Cup-themed cocktail (Mount Gay Eclipse rum, Amarula African fruit cream liqueur, bitters, Coke) -- and the four-star restaurant doesn't even have a television.
With all this soccerness in mind, I spent the first week of the Cup searching for the Twin Cities' best soccer-bar scenes. Brit's might be big-time, but I found a trio of smaller bars doing big things -- attracting crowds that are loud, loyal and diverse. Just like the World Cup.
1:30 p.m. June 12: The Nomad Pub
The tournament began June 11, but the festivities didn't really start until the next day, when old enemies clashed: U.S.A. vs England.
On Minneapolis' West Bank, Nomad owner Todd Smith had spent thousands of dollars erecting an outdoor block party to rival even the big-budget weekend at Brit's (which counted EA Sports and Best Buy as sponsors). One thing he didn't plan on: a soggy Saturday.
But even a full day of rain couldn't wash out the party. More than 1,000 people showed up to root for the American underdogs.
Among the throngs of rain-soaked (and beer-soaked) fans, Deepak Adhikari stood out. He hadn't picked a side; instead he'd painted one cheek with the U.S. flag and the other with England's red cross. Born in Nepal but raised in Singapore, Adhikari wasn't partial to either country and thought he'd have a happier day cheering for both sides. Even in the rain.
"Rain is not going to stop me," he said.
After the game ended on a 1-1 tie, Smith trudged through the bar, picking up bundles of wet trash. He was already thinking about his finale party on July 11.
"The finale will be bigger," he said. "We're going to have Brazilian dancers."
1:30 p.m. June 17: Pancho Villa
With our large Latino population, the Twin Cities bar scene is home to plenty of Mexican strongholds. Pancho Villa stands out for one glaring reason:
"Cheap drinks!" yelled bargoer Yaleb Villalobos last Thursday. He had come to watch Mexico play France.
Villalobos, 27, and his friends sat around a table covered in empty and half-empty glasses. The Eat Street restaurant offers two-for-ones on margaritas and tap beers -- all day.
Owner Ivan Cardenas has steadily built up his small restaurant since 2005, when he began expanding into neighboring storefronts. Wearing a green Mexico jersey, he stood in a packed crowd of green as he helped direct his beefed-up staff (five extra servers and three cooks on this day). The World Cup has been good for business. The only problem:
"I'm running around -- I don't have time to watch," he said.
Even with air conditioning and an array of ceiling fans, the air inside the restaurant grew muggier as more and more people streamed through the door. Villalobos sat transfixed as his team struggled to score its first goal.
"If you lose, it's like you break up with your girlfriend. You have that pain in your chest," he said. "If you win, it's like you got a new girlfriend."
His friends included a mix of Colombians and Mexicans (the Colombians cheered for France). After Mexico went up 1-0, one of Villalobos' compadres threw the Mexican flag over Javier Delgado, a Colombian.
"I'm melting!" screamed Delgado.
Soon, Mexico was up 2-0, a score France wouldn't recover from. Maybe it was time for Villalobos and his friends to go back to work. What work, they said?
"It's like a holiday," Villalobos said of the World Cup. "It's like Holy Week."
9 a.m. June 18: Sweetwater
First impressions aren't promising when you drive up to the Best Western Kelly Inn in St. Paul. Could it really be true? Is this no-frills hotel home to one of the Twin Cities' best soccer bars?
The answer: Yes. The Sweetwater Grille & Bar's rise to prominence among soccer enthusiasts can be attributed to the passion of one man: owner Saeed Ghasemi. Born in Iran, Ghasemi moved to Minnesota in 1979, right before the Iranian revolution. A lifelong soccer fan, he counts Germany as his favorite team.
"Right now, I don't like my government, so I don't care if [Iran] wins or loses," he said. (Its team didn't quality for the Cup.)
After taking over the hotel bar in 2005, Ghasemi began tuning all of the TVs to soccer matches, and decorated its homely confines with banners and signed jerseys. Soccer fans followed.
"If there is a game on anywhere in the world, Saeed can get it," said bargoer Kevin Joseph, 34.
Ghasemi has gone to great lengths to make sure his regulars believe that. He spent $1,500 to wire the TVs so they could show hard-to-get games only available online. He spent another $1,000 last October to play the closed-circuit World Cup qualifier between the United States and Honduras. About 300 people squeezed into the bar and an adjoining banquet room.
Last Friday, he opened at 6:30 a.m. to play the day's first World Cup game. By 9 a.m., the bar was packed with U.S. fans. Maybe you heard about this game? As the second half began, the U.S. team mounted a miraculous comeback, bringing the score to 2-2 against Slovenia. Chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" echoed through the bar.
Joe Leyba, 35, was wearing his red-white-and-blue jersey and a U.S. team scarf around his neck. He's been watching games at the bar for five years. "This was the place that treated us the best," Leyba said.
And that's the truth. When the World Cup ends, some bars will turn their TVs back to baseball, football or whatever other American sport is in season. But establishments like Sweetwater will continue showing the world's sport, even when it's not in fashion. The U.S.A.-Slovenia game, of course, ended in a lightning storm of boos, with the U.S. team's winning goal disallowed. Even so, these bargoers will be back.
"This is the next best thing for us besides going to the game," Leyba said.
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