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   June 8, 2002 | 1100 IST



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Beer and blues for Argentina

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Prem Panicker

I'm switching loyalties to futbol.

After six years of covering cricket, I never yet managed to get completely smashed by 9.30 am.

Quilmes is Argentina's favorite beer -- and official sponsor of the national team for the World Cup. Judging by the first bottle, at 7.10 am, it is very ‘Indian’ -- heady, strong, leaning towards the bitter in taste.

By the sixth bottle -- emptied at 9.15 am -- I couldn’t have cared what it tasted like, since by then I was busy drowning Argentina’s national sorrow.

Novecento Novecento (343 Broadway, between Broome and Grand Streets) is Argentina’s premier bar in New York -- and the place to go to watch the national team play. At 6.30 am, an hour ahead of match time, there’s a good 50 people outside on the sidewalk, huddling against the freezing rain and waiting to get in.

Eleven of the men, and five of the women, are wearing the Argentine colors -- pale blue and white stripes. They all have the number 9 on their backs.

Number 9 is Batistuta. He’s getting on a bit since he first stole the scene -- and female hearts -- in the 1994 Cup. But judging by the number of '9' jerseys on view, and the cheer he gets when he first appears on the three TV screens in the bar, 'Archangel Gabriel' is still hot.

Back up a bit, to 6.30 am. Outside, people huddle. Inside, the staff huddles -- in the center of the floor, while manager Sebastien Arperin gives them the team talk.

'Seat people in groups as they come in. Do not worry; do not waste time explaining; just seat them and move on. No specials today on the menu -- ham and eggs yes, bacon yes, omelettes yes, anyone wants specials you tell them come another day. Everything served in paper plates, cups. Deliver the food, deliver the drink and get the bill to the customer, and get it cleared, at once, boom! It’s going to be a mess in here, guys -- let’s stay on top of it!’

Sebastien -- who sports a Dodgers T shirt -- tosses his troops Argentine team jerseys sponsored by Quilmes.

The staff takes one last look around the room. Long bar dominating, the usual assortment of bottles, well-worn wooden floor, no-frills tables and chairs. These last are, for the occasion, arranged to maximize seating -- five long rows of tables, 11 chairs around each row, 55 seats in all.

Moments later, the staff is in position, the doors are thrown open -- and within 5 minutes, an estimated 275 people throng in.

The boisterous crowd Novecento is directly across the street from Felix, the French bar I watched the Cup inaugural from -- but it is an entire world away in terms of attitude.

Here the crowd is noisy; it is boisterous; it knows what it wants and what it wants is for Argentina to ‘stick it to the crybaby Brits!’ as Stefano puts it.

Crybaby Brits? "Yeah, man," goes the Buenos Aires native now studying in New School. "They whine about everything -- Maradona’s goal in 1986, that prissy Beckham whining about getting the red card last time (a reference to the current England captain being famously sent off in course of England’s second round loss to Argentina in 1998) ... they suck!"

Stefano talks at the top of his voice. So does everyone else -- when you have 250-plus in a 55-seater bar, that’s the way to go. His comments are overheard, and enthusiastically endorsed by those nearby.

So, by way of helping things along, I go, but Maradona as much as admitted he fouled that 1986 goal, remember the ‘hand of God’ comment and accompanying smirk?

‘Come on come on come on, Maradona was only saying God helped him score that goal for the country, what’s with you? He’s five foot nothing, the goalkeeper’s six foot plenty, God had to have lifted him up for that header!’

Endorsement from those around. Diplomatic silence from me.

My companions for the morning are David, an Irishman -- "I root for anyone who’s playing the British" -- and his girlfriend, Sandra, a walking testimonial to the American melting pot.

Check this out: her mother is half Eucadorian and half American, dad is from Bolivia, she herself is an American citizen who calls herself "Eucadorian when I am not American”, and she roots -- boisterously at that -- for Argentina, her favorite team.

"Actually, Eucador is not doing badly," she says. The tone is defensive.

"It’s doing better than India which is doing nothing at all." I go, with all the air of ‘I know what it is like to root for another team just cause your own country doesn’t do too well in this’.


The game begins -- and the bar is in ferment. Initially, it is Argentina making all the play -- to pumped fists and full throated yells of ‘Vamos!’ from the denizens of Novecento.

Batistuta gets pulled up for an unfair tackle in the 13th minute, and a collective "Oooooooooooo" goes up from the crowd.

Sandra in overdrive Michael Owen tries for an Oscar a minute later with a swan dive just because an Argentine defender looked cross-eyed at him, and Sandra is in overdrive: ‘F***ing cheat,’ she goes.

Behind me, a couple of Argentines say something in their language, I ask for a translation, and David -- who, thanks to Cupid, speaks the lingo -- grins. "They’re saying that dive is typical of the Brits -- always faking."

It is 18 minutes into the game before the English begin to stitch together viable moves -- each one of which is greeted with a huge boo. "What, we aren’t allowed to touch the ball?" asks Dwayne, one of the few Britishers in the bar.

‘GO, BECKHAM!’ comes a yell from behind me. That’s Gwen -- British as they come, and she’s come with her Argentine companion Frederico, who goes "Shush, this is Team Argentina in here!"

He gets a dig in the ribs. And the laughing comment, "Tell you what, if we guys make it to the next round and you don’t, I am going to remind you of it for the rest of my life. Approximately the rest of my life!"

The game hots up when Michael Owen finds the bar in the 24th minute and within seconds, Batistuta heads cleanly at the other end only to be thwarted by Seaman in the British goal.

What intrigues the crowd though is the absence of Beckham -- while Owen is seemingly peripatetic, the England skipper is nowhere to be seen. "Ah, he’s gone for a quick smooze with Posh (Spice)," Sandra sniffs when I point this out.

Argentina enjoys the better of the exchanges, the beer flows -- some of it on to me, as the guy behind me gets his arm jostled just as he was taking a sip -- and the humor quotient in there is sky high. And then, in the 44th minute, the bar groans in unison as Owen is brought down, needlessly at that, by Mauricio Pochettino.

‘F***ing idiot, I don’t believe he did that!’ groans Sandra. The rest of the bar is groaning too. David pats her upside the head, in mock sympathy.

The referee points to the spot. Beckham -- given the chance to take revenge for 1998 -- converts. And Gwen does a little dance around Frederico.

Half time sees a still optimistic crowd. Batistuta is just getting into it, says Stefano, you watch. The biggest cheer of the day then goes up, as the baby-faced Aimar takes the field for Veron. "He looks like Maradona on a diet," David says.

Aimar rocks the crossbar almost with his first touch.

"Vamos!" "Vaaaaaaaaamossssssss!! "

Early play in the second half is scrappy. England noticeably has no midfield presence -- Argentina controls that space. On the other hand, the men in blue and white seem to run out of ideas when they get into the rival box -- Ortega and Batistuta seem to be playing in two different games, Aimar for the most part wanders around hoping someone will give him the ball...

The English defense meanwhile has got its second wind and increasingly, looks solid. Seaman in goal is a rock. And at the other end, Sheringham, then Owen, test Pablo Cavallero in the Argentine goal scrambling with rifling volleys.

Aimar takes a crisp drive, and Seaman foils him again. ‘F*** him!’ yells Sandra, who was up on her feet to cheer what she thought was a certain goal.

Learning to clap! Testosterone flows in the room -- and curiously, it is the women who are full of it. They are the ones cheering, chanting, doing little jigs and starting up a slow handclapping, as an Argentine midfielder gets the ball, the clapping gaining in pace and volume as the ball moves upfield.

You know how to clap? Stefano is the master. Alright, do it with me like I did it with Stefano: Left hand bent at the elbow, held up. Left wrist cocked, fingers slightly curving upwards. Now, the right hand, wrist cocked, partly cupped. Bring it down, right smart, so the fingers of the right hand slap into the palm of the left, the right palm curving over the heel of the left palm...



Despite all the beer that’s being drunk, the inmates don’t seem to be too much into food. Argentina’s favorite dish is the Parrillada - which is described to me as a combination of various meats on a platter.

Novecento doesn’t serve that, even on non-match days. It’s menu is a medley of Argentine staples -- Empanadas (which are meat or chicken turnovers), Filet Mignon Quesadillas, Steak Frites with fries and chimichurri sauce, Straccetti (sliced filet mignon sautéed with oyster mushrooms, roast potatoes, cherry tomatoes and balsamic vinegar) and Pansotti, the daily special, served in tomato sauce and basil.

There are also some international staples -- steamed mussels, Atlantic salmon, grilled tuna salad, skirt steak...

The menu is in that sense reflective of Novecento’s ownership -- half Irish, half Argentine. "We go live for all Irish and Argentine games, and Brazil’s games," Arperin tells me.

The game meanwhile is drawing to an end -- and with each passing minute, the noise levels inside the bar come down another notch. Defeat now looks inevitable -- England has packed its defense, the Argentines drag the ball all the way to the top of the box only to be dispossessed and have to start all over again...

"Well never mind," shrugs Sandra before racing off to her day job, as Latino program manager at the Queens Theatre in Central Park. "We’ll make it to the next round and go on to take the Cup."

Behind me, Frederico’s woes are just beginning.

"You lost, darling!" Gwen laughs. "And I’ll keep reminding you of this. For approximately the rest of my life!"

Photographs: Paresh Gandhi


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