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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Looking to score in the USA


“Are you showing the World Cup soccer on TV?”

The thump of heavy metal blasts through the gaping doorway of the Cowboy Bar in Pinedale, Wyoming, at 7.50am Pacific time, nine hours behind South Africa.

“Nah,” drawls the cleaner, tattooed and grim-jawed, adjusting his baseball cap as he looks up from washing down the floor with a high pressure hose, “only from 11am.”

Something about the taut line of his minimum wage smile keeps the complaint suppressed: “but the banner outside
says you’re showing all the matches.”

We have woken at dawn to bounce down a dirt road in our 12 cylinder, 25 foot RV with two double beds, a shower, stove and fridge from a remote mountainside campsite called Half Moon Lake. We have hurtled across grizzly bear and moose country into this rough-and-tumble town to score us some soccer.

Former colonial masters England are about to face off against Germany. But Wyoming, famous for gun-toting cowboys and rodeos, has no interest in the beautiful game. (see Stars and Stripes pic at a rodeo in Cody)

Outside the Corral Bar, a revving Ford F-250 bakkie belches smoke while a patron staggers from the saloon to hurl abuse at the driver – the detritus of a hard night’s drinking. Inside, a weathered bar woman looks blank. “You can’t bring kids in here unless you order food. It’s the law.”

“That’s okay, we’ll order food, thanks.”

“We don’t serve food til 3pm.”

“Can we just get toast?”

Her eyes narrow, lips purse and bony fingers tense around the glass she cleans: “We don’t serve food til three.”

The inhabitants of cowboy country are getting on with life, oblivious to the biggest sports event in the world. Two taverns later, the lumbering RV makes one last stop – a low-slung wooden edifice called the Wrangler Café that hunkers down on the edge of town.

We strike gold – a thin vein in a corner of “them thar hills”. The soccer is on, tucked away in a back room, the audio a faint murmur. A round table of six elderly locals, one sporting a white cowboy hat, tuck into pancakes and coffee under a tiny TV. (See pic left). Germany 2: England 0. We sit. England scores, and minutes later scores again, this time off the crossbar. But the ref and his assistant don’t see it. Neither do the patrons of the Wrangler Café. We groan. We finish our fry-up and leave. Score: 4-1.

This frantic hunt for games has been our routine for two weeks. Unable to return home after air ticket complications following a university fellowship in Cambridge, we have been stuck in the non-soccer loving US of A where soccer star Landon Donovan is not exactly a household name.

We had drained our credit account and flew to Vegas to pick up a rented RV for a road trip adventure out West – four excitable South Africans, aged 8 to 46, let loose in a stuffy metal cabin on wheels cruising small town USA during the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

What was the first thing we did in Vegas? Gamble? Hell no. We hunted down a sports bar in a giant casino to watch diving divas Uruguay thrash Bafana 3-0. It was unnerving to watch The Boys gored with such inglorious repetition on 10 TV screens. The other 12 screens were dedicated to horse racing at Belmont Park. Rows of punters glued to private PC screens couldn’t give a hoot about our result, or pain. (see tv screen pic)

Yet countrywide, ABC aired all US World Cup games, and cable channel ESPN has pushed a national campaign. Their generic banner, emblazoned with the South Africa 2010 logo, advertise coverage at numerous sports bars scattered across America. Most small-town newspapers have wire agency coverage, and the New York Times dedicates up to two pages per day. Even Vanity Fair magazine featured a glossy cover of topless soccer heroes.

And yet we were the only people at a venue in Rock Springs, Wyoming, to watch last African hope Ghana defeat the US. Hauling the 25 foot bus around in a desperate bid to find a friendly screen, we walked into Mexican restaurant La Bamba, where the owner was watching solo on a small TV. The kindest of hosts, he switched from his Hispanic channel to English-speaking ABC, and lost interest.

Patrons meandered in, but were more interested in enchiladas and quesadillas. At 1-1, three minutes into extra time, we roared as Ghana scored. A group of fire-fighters glanced up at the TV, and recoiled with shock when they realized our cheers were for the Black Stars. Dagger eyes shot at us. It took a treasonous act to interrupt their disinterest.

AP journalist Nancy Armour commented that the US was “flat and uninspired”. Add to this mix, supporters who lacked the mojo to elevate them from the second tier. Not even Bill Clinton and LA Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium could wake the slumbering giant to the magic of the World Cup. Their sanctuary is all American sports where professional teams play in “World Series” inside the USA.

But the four of us in our RV have felt the energy emanating from home, bolstered by sporadic pockets of passion in small town America.

We watched England draw with Algeria at Sticks & Steaks, Sedona, a tourist town in Arizona nestling in the famous Red Rock Canyon. The now familiar ESPN banner hung at the entrance, and a board mapped out the path to the finals. At the Carver Brewing Company in Durango, Colorado, over an early-morning breakfast, Bafana scored against France, and did it again. We bellowed, then looked around demurely. But the waiter said we were welcome to shout loud as we liked. We didn’t get that chance. “Bad luck,” he said as we left with heavy stomachs and even heavier hearts.

There was a vibrant collection of expat fans and tourists – interspersed with bemused Americans – when Mexico faced Argentina at the Sidewinder tavern in Jackson, Wyoming. Patrons watched from a dozen screens lining the walls. We shared a giant Nachos for 10 bucks, chuckling at Diego Maradona’s quirky hubris as his team thrashed Mexico 3-1.

As we enter the finals stage, we will continue to knock on small-town saloon doors. When asked where we were for 2010, we’ll always say, we were there … kinda.
* This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus,