Roligans, Vuvuzelas, and Seattle’s Sad Soccer Sobriety
By Dave Fox
If you told me I was going to be hanging out in an Irish pub, watching a World Cup soccer match surrounded by Danish and Dutch fans, and that every person in the pub would be quietly sipping coffee or tea, I would think you were on crack.
If you told me this was going to take place at a pub in the United States, and that directly above the plasma screen TV, the wall would be prominently adorned with a North Korean flag, I would think you were on really powerful crack.
If you told me I was going to wake up at 4 a.m. just to watch a sporting event – any sporting event – I would think I was on crack.
But all of these things happened this morning. There was no crack. There wasn’t even any beer.
Today is Day 4 of the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa, and here in Seattle, a handful of bars is opening up for every single game. Never mind that the first games each day start at 1:30 p.m. in South Africa – which is 4:30 a.m. in Seattle. And never mind that bars in Seattle are not allowed to serve alcohol between 2 and 6 a.m. People are showing up.
I’m not sure what came over me. I’m hardly a die-hard soccer fan. And as a Norwegiophile, I’m not normally one to get excited about the Danish national football team. Denmark ruled over Norway for more than 400 years after all. But I guide tours in Scandinavia, I am two weeks shy of getting to sit in a scruffy dive bar in Copenhagen and watch tipsy Danes yell at the television (I arrive in Copenhagen 16 days from now), and I am always up for a party. A party with no beer is questionable, but for mysterious reasons, I decided around 10 o’clock last night that the smart thing to do would be to go to bed, set my alarm for 4 a.m., and drive down to Fadó, an Irish-style chain pub in downtown Seattle, to join a bunch of fatigued football freaks who were getting hopped up on too much coffee while all of the bottles behind the bar were in lockdown.
As I slid back into yesterday’s jeans and wandered toward the bathroom, I spotted a cuddly-looking, medium-sized spider who was up for the day, stretching his legs and taking a walk up my wall. Driving toward the city center, I discovered there is actually a time of day when there are no traffic snarls in Seattle. It apparently lasts from roughly 3:36 a.m. to 4:49 a.m.
At 4:43 a.m., I was speeding downtown, cursing myself for oversleeping. Arriving at the bar 20 minutes into the game, I stepped into a surreal world.
Occupying a large table in the center of the bar were around a dozen fans in red-and-white Danish football attire. They eyed me suspiciously in my yellow University of Oslo T-shirt. They looked dreadfully sober.
There are a few things you should know about Danes. History aside, I like Danes because Danes like beer. They have a pub culture that rivals Ireland’s. And unlike the United States, or Norway for that matter, Denmark has no stigma about when or where it’s okay to drink beer. The following are among my encounters with Danes and alcohol:
- On my first visit to Copenhagen in the early 1990s, I stepped off a night train from Oslo at 7 a.m. and took a walk down Strøget, Copenhagen’s main pedestrian drag. The bars were packed with men in business suits, slurping down breakfast beers on their way to work.
- One year, when my tour group arrived on the island of Ærø on Denmark’s Constitution Day, I bought everybody a round of Gammel Dansk, Denmark’s national booze, as something to sip on before we ate. After the meal, the waitress pulled me aside and said, “Dave, that was a nice gesture, but you know that in Denmark, we never drink Gammel Dansk before dinner, don’t you?” I did not know this. I asked when the appropriate time to drink Gammel Dansk was. “We drink it with our Sunday morning coffee while we read the newspaper.”
- Along Nyhavn, Copenhagen’s harbor and best people-watching spot, outdoor restaurants sell pints of Tuborg and Carlsberg for around 50 Danish kroner. (There are roughly six kroner to one US dollar.) But if you want to be a true Dane, go into a store, buy a six-pack (or more) with friends, sit down on the pier across from the restaurants, and drink for a fraction of the price. It’s legal. Homeless people wander past to collect the empties, which they turn in for deposits, so there is no litter. Drink beer; help the homeless. It’s the Danish way.
- Walking through Copenhagen one time with my friend Ivar, I told him my favorite thing to do whenever I arrived in Denmark was to go into a grocery store, buy a bottle of beer, open it up, and drink it walking down the street… just because I can. “But Dave,” Ivar protested, “you should never do that in Denmark. It’s considered really low-class.” That made no sense to me. “I see people drinking on the streets all the time here,” I said. Ivar replied, “But you don’t walk down the street drinking your beer! You sit down on the sidewalk and drink it!” (…Duh.)
The point to all of this is, Danes really really like beer. They also really really like soccer… in an intoxicated yet peace-loving way. Danish soccer fans are known as “roligans.” They’re not hooligans. “Rolig” is the Danish word for “calm.” Oh sure, they get a little rowdy after they’ve had a few, but nobody gets hurt.
At least not usually. But I wondered what would happen in a pub, with a game on TV, and no beer.
The Danes were not getting violent, however. They just looked a little sad.
There was one seat left at the bar next to a couple of guys dressed in orange – Dutch supporters. As I sat down next to them, I realized I looked like I was sleeping with the enemy. In a dimly lit pub at 5 a.m., my yellow T-shirt looked more orange than red. The bartender asked if he could get me anything. I gazed longingly at rows of beer taps and a wide array of whiskeys that could not be opened. I stuttered, struggling to get the words out:
“I’d like a… a cup of… tea please.”
Then, I looked up at the ceiling, where a row of flags hung, celebrating all of the World Cup competing nations. There it was, directly above the television: the flag of North Korea. I sipped my Earl Grey and felt oppressed.
The first half of the game was scoreless. In the first minute of the second half, things turned rotten for Denmark when Danish defender Simon Poulsen headed the ball, bounced it off the back of teammate Daniel Agger, and into Denmark’s own goal. Score one for the Netherlands, officially credited to Agger as a point against his team.
Agger was seen smiling immediately after the incident, and can you blame him? At least he was not playing for North Korea, where national law states that if you score against your own country, coaches will immediately escort you to the locker room and impale you with vuvuzela horns.
Ah yes, the vuvuzela. A week ago, most soccer fans outside of Africa had never heard of the extremely loud, meter-long, plastic horns that drone throughout every match, but if you’ve watched even a minute of any game in this tournament, you have heard them. They’re a South African football tradition. They sound a bit like a swarm of pissed off wasps who are angry because they are being forced to watch a soccer match without beer. The horns are so loud (127 decibels, compared to 113 decibels for a plane taking off), that there’s been talk of banning them. Some people fear they would drown out the noise of evacuation announcements in the event of an emergency, not to mention cries on the field of “Dude! I’m wide open!” But it seems World Cup officials are letting the horns remain. And as a matter of national pride for South Africa, it’s the right thing to do.
I passed quickly through Johannesburg last January on my way to Botswana. With five months to go before the start of the World Cup, it was clear what a huge deal this tournament was going to be for South Africa. Under Apartheid, there were official divisions and there were also unofficial divisions between black and white South Africans. Soccer was a sport traditionally favored by black South Africans. Whites played rugby. South Africa still suffers from a huge Apartheid hangover in the form of huge economic disparities between blacks and whites, but the World Cup has become a huge source of national pride for both races. It’s playing a small role in the healing that still needs to happen. Excitement over this month’s festivities was palpable even back in January. The positive role the tournament is playing for the country was obvious.
As I finished my Earl Grey this morning, the Netherlands scored a second goal, sealing up the match with five minutes to go. The magical 6 o’clock hour had just arrived in Seattle’s bars, but most of the fans finished their alcohol-free cups of caffeine and slithered off to work. I went home, took a short nap, and woke up an hour later feeling as if I had just had a bizarre dream. Never in my life did I imagine a moment when I would see Danes go to a pub and stay sober while watching football. But then, 25 years ago, I struggled to envision a day when South Africa’s Apartheid system would be outlawed.
As I thought about how far South Africa has come since the 1980s, I realized Seattle’s laws banning public drinking during early-morning sporting events are trivial in the great scheme of things, and maybe I shouldn’t whine so much.
I also remembered some laws really need to be abolished.
Coming in March, 2011: I’ll be leading another journaling and travel memoir writing safari in Botswana, with an optional visit to Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and Soweto Township. Explore the Okavango Delta and Kalahari Desert for nine days of wildlife viewing, southern African culture, creative travel writing classes, and more! For details, visit GlobejotterTours.com.