Ed. II | The Away Match

The two o’clock church bells from St. Paul’s on Knapp Street are in full voice on a grey Monday afternoon. The walk to Clare’s isn’t one of frostbitten wind, but by no means would I call it a warm commute as I zigzag to avoid puddles on the city’s choppy sidewalks. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Monday match at Clare’s, come to think of it. But after traveling for the past two weeks away on work, nothing sounds better than ninety minutes of Manchester City away at Arsenal with a well-poured Guinness next to the fireplace. That’s why I’m so thoroughly disappointed to tug on a door that just won’t budge.

Closed on a Monday afternoon.

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One locked door wasn’t going to prevent me from enjoying what on paper should be a very good game. County Clare’s isn’t the only football-friendly bar in the neighborhood, but it’s my football bar – tucked away, quiet, warm, and refreshingly diverse from trendier soccer pubs in the city. However, a good manager can adapt to the unforeseen and change the game plan if needed. I’ll head over to Nomad World Pub on Brady Street.

Nomad is Milwaukee’s urban soccer oasis. During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, they even controversially constructed a ‘favela’ (the Brazilian Portuguese equivalent of a ‘slum’) adjacent to the pub for a more festive viewing experience. Soccer fans, many of them hipsters, flock there for their weekly dosage of footy. Typically, it plays host to American fans of the Premier League’s original big four – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea. My hypothesis is that these once teenage bandwagons (for lack of a better word), as American supporters of European clubs tend to be, are now bar-goers and have brought the allegiances from their adolescent clubs with them. That being said, the pub is far from partisan and fans of competing clubs coexist peacefully for the most part.

The venue is a narrow, charcoal colored building with large windows plopped on a forgettable intersection of a bar-heavy corridor. Still nil-nil, I can see it through the glass. The door is held for me as I skip up the steps by a man in ball cap and puffy blue coat to whom I end up sitting next to at the far end of the bar. My eye picks out an Henry kit circa-2005 near the door on my way in, but others just wear red. And some are downright undetectable apart from their obvious lean in preference based on the pattern of play up on the big screens. It’s almost a completely pro-Gunners crowd.

“Can I get you something?” asks the bartender. No question, no hesitation. Guinness. Then I turn to the man in the ball cap and ask if he had a horse in the race, but he defers.

“I’m just hoping for injuries and red cards,” interjects the bartender, obviously feeling invited to join the conversation. He’s not someone who you’d pin as a soccer fan in this country. If he told me he played second string lineman for the Green Bay Packers, I wouldn’t call him on it. He’s imposingly burly with a proud beard and a black hat worn backwards. “I’m a United fan.” (Go figure).

“What do you think of United this season, then?” I plug into him.

“I don’t think we’re playing that badly, but there is no cutting edge,” he decides. Casually, I introduce the idea that many Man. United fans would argue that’s a reason to infer they are playing poorly. He seems chuffed that I’m interested in his opinion. We chat about how patience is running thin with Louis Van Gaal as manager, but he turns gravely disappointed when I bring up the rumors about a certain Jose Mourinho replacing him. Mourinho apparently rubs the bartender the wrong way. He wouldn’t be the first.

“The thing about these big name managers like Mourinho and Pep (Guardiola) is that they always manage the big clubs. I’d like to see what would happen if they took over a mid-table team. If they’re so great, they should be able to take those clubs to the top,” he proposes with a hard left turn in conversation.

I think he and I both know that’s highly unlikely, but I’m amused nonetheless. Then, without warning, he slides across the bar to tend to a refill.  

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Around this time Theo Walcott turns his former teammate, Bacary Sagna, on the corner of the penalty area and curls a well-hit ball around the outstretched arms of Joe Hart into the side netting – 1-0 Gunners. Nomad’s patrons erupt. The two men sat two my left high-five and some fella behind me is blurting out “THEOOOOOO!”

“Is that another assist for Özil?” one of high-fivers asked the other in disbelief. Replays confirm that it is, even though it’s not his most aesthetic work. The pass looks like it was originally intended for the overlapping Nacho Monreal. But when Walcott intercepts, it genuinely fools Sagna, creating the necessary buffer of space for the former Southampton player to shoot.

Thirteen minutes later, Mesut Özil picks the lock again. After a poor giveaway in the shallow midfield from City, the German collects possession near the scene of his first assist. This time he slides Olivier Giroud down the left side of the penalty area and the Frenchman pummels a ball low through the legs of Joe Hart on his favorite left foot.

Turning to the guy that held the door for me 25 minutes before, I pose a second topical question, trying to locate an octave to overcome the volume of the celebrating Arsenal fans.

“Alright. So you’re on the playground and you’re team captain, okay? There’s either Özil or David Silva to play in the hole for your team. Who do you pick?”

My doorman, Mike, comes alive at this. First he squints as if I’ve posed a very difficult proposition. Then he comes clean, though indirectly: “I don’t really have a reason for this answer, and I wish I did. But I just don’t really like Özil. I don’t know why. I just don’t. There’s something about him.” I assume he means to solve my hypothetical by going with David Silva, then? Still, he never admits it. And even though his answer makes close to zero logical sense, I vaguely understand oddly enough.

The German international of Turkish heritage has a languid, almost arrogant way of carrying himself, even if unintended. And when things aren’t going Arsenal’s way, it’s easy for fans and critics to scapegoat Özil for possessing a ‘lazy’ demeanor. Contrastingly, he frequently outruns his teammates for distance over ninety minutes if he makes it that long. Yet, for the first time at Arsenal, Mesut Özil is starting to shed these pretentions and find some desired consistency. Less regularly is he floating to the periphery of games, and more regularly is he providing that surgical passing accuracy that de-robes defenses. His feed into Giroud was the 15th goal he’s made this season. Not bad going into Christmas.

I imagine it’s a difficult adjustment moving from Real Madrid. After having provided services for Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and company, you then make the switch to Walcott, Giroud, and Danny Welbeck. And with due respect to those players, none of them will get you as many goals a season a someone like Cristiano, who can by naturally inflate the stats of the players around him. I share these opinions with Mike, and he agrees, but I’m not sure it changes his outlook on our pal, Özil.

The second half brings a Yaya Toure goal that shocks everyone, nobody more than Petr Cech. Left footed, coming across his body, lolly-popping trajectory with some witchcraft-induced pace… I can’t quite place it. But you can feel the tension thicken in Nomad for the last quarter hour. Luckily for the Gunners fans on hand, Arsenal hold on for three points. Leicester City will be top at Christmas and nobody called that, but these Arsenal fans that made time for their team on a Monday afternoon will be pleased that the Gunners will be two points from first come Boxing Day.

I scuttle out just as the final whistle peeps, bidding good day to Mike. It wasn’t exactly as homey as Clare’s, but I don’t mind an away fixture every now and again. Happy Holidays.