Looking for soccer hooligans in unchartered territory

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My alarm goes off at 7:30 a.m., but I’ve already been awake for an hour. Call it a combination of the cats wanting to be fed and just not being able to get comfortable. I rouse from my heated cocoon of warmth and slightly cringe as my feet hit the cold hardwood floor. Yeah, bundling up today.

I dress simply for the upcoming journey. T-shirt, comfortable pants, sneakers that should have been replaced months ago, plus the usual New York City winter necessities, and I step outside into the bitter cold. You see, Juventus plays Hellas Verona today, one of many Italian Serie A games to kick off 2016, and it’s time to go watch at the sole place in town that will be open for it — a place where soccerheads and hooligans alike can meet and watch their favorite clubs when getting the game at home isn’t an option.

I text my friend Mara as I walk the two blocks to the subway, right on time for our planned 8 a.m. meeting. She’s running a few minutes late, and I receive the all-clear to head downtown and secure seats.

After all, missing Juventus when one is in a position to watch the game live is a cardinal sin.

As I begin the long ride downtown, the obvious crosses my mind. New York City is not a soccer town. Sure, Major League Soccer has given us the New York Red Bulls and NYC FC — the latter of which has become the new home of former Juventus midfielder and Italian star Andrea Pirlo — but neither team is on the same level as some of the international greats; Real Madrid. Chelsea. Internazionale. Paris-St.Germain. Bayern Munich, the list goes on.

But the type of fandom those teams have in their home cities differs from that here in the United States. Sure, there are small pockets of ex-pats who still follow their respective teams even though they aren’t home to see it up close, and there are certainly children of European immigrants who just root for the teams their parents support. Amongst a majority of Americans, a group which includes myself, the case is simply picking a team and jumping on the bandwagon.

Such has been the case for myself and Juventus FC, the legendary team from Turin, Italy that has basically become Italian soccer’s equivalents of the New York Yankees. In over a century of existence, Juventus has won the Scudetto (think Italian soccer’s World Series) 31 times, 10 Coppa Italia titles and two UEFA Champions League finals. How did I pick them? Well, it’s simple. My roommate, Sam, invited me to watch a game with him once, and the rest is history. As I reflect on this, I suddenly realize that the subway has arrived at my stop and I rush off the train before the doors close.

The cold air hits me like a whip to the face, but there’s more heat than my initial walk out my door. That can be attributed to the myriad number of my fellow New Yorkers walking the streets on their morning commute. I shuffle past some and then continue the walk due east before checking my clock. Ten minutes of nine, perfect timing.

I arrive at the bar, Legends, a few minutes later and head downstairs to the area that has since become known as The Football Factory. I greet Jack, the Irish bartender who calls himself “The Leader of All the Gangs of New York” with a good morning handshake. He wishes me a happy new year and points me towards where today’s game will be broadcast. In another corner of the downstairs area, a group of rowdy Bologna fans prepare for a key matchup against AC Milan.

I park myself on a barstool as Jack hands me a pint of coffee.

“Everything at the Football Factory comes in pints,” he quips.

The rest of the Juventus crowd for the day shows up. Mara strolls in a couple of minutes after me. Then Sam. Then their friend Tal, who I have yet to meet. The action begins and we all enjoy our pints of steaming hot caffeine and order grilled cheese sandwiches with bacon, or a chicken quesadilla. By some stroke of bad luck, the usual breakfast menu is not an option today.

Sure enough, the action starts quickly and in Juventus’ favor. Argentinian sensation Paulo Dybala scores on a free kick eight minutes in. Hellas Verona just looks flat after that, despite Juve’s legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi “Gigi” Buffon making a glorious save here and there. To close out the first half, Leonardo Bonucci scores to give the team known as the Bianconeri a 2-0 lead.

It’s now halftime and we order more pints of coffee while discussing the upcoming schedule. A visit to Sampdoria is on Sunday, followed by Udinese a week later. At the end of the month comes Roma, a team that is right on our tail.

The second half then begins, essentially garbage time since Hellas Verona is at the very bottom of Serie A’s standings. As the ball goes back and forth across the pitch, I pose the immortal question to Jack. What makes the fandom seen in America so different from what we witness in Europe, where some teams are forced to play in empty stadiums because of hooliganism that results in riots and, in some cases, death?

“It’s the common bond of watching football,” Jack answers immediately, straight-faced. “In the UK or anywhere in Europe, this would never happen. There’d be people going through bar windows along with the TVs if two separate fan bases were at the same pub, especially with the Premier League.”

Jack then tells a yarn about how when he first started working in New York 22 years ago, people going to watch soccer at a bar was nonexistent, not even for the World Cup. But society has now changed to the point where we can accept new sports. Loving a sport that goes by every name from soccer to football to futbol to calcio doesn’t give one the label of being a communist. Rather, it sparks a conversation about who your team is and why, and Jack wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” he says with a bit of emotion. “And I’m nowhere near finished.”

The latter minutes of the game bring some added excitement, as young prospect Simone Zaza subs in. At 24, he is one of the club’s best forwards but has not received much playing time, what with coach Massimiliano Allegri opting to play Spanish striker Alvaro Morata despite his struggles.

Zaza proves he belongs in the starting lineup almost instantly, breaking away with the ball before sniping it past Hellas’ goalkeeper to make the score 3-0 in the 82nd minute. It is at this point that Jack gives us our tabs, and we pay after what has been a fiery day in the league. Roma blew two separate leads against Chievo Verona to draw 3-3, continuing its spiral down the standings. The small trove of Bologna faithful let out a cheer as former Juventus midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini scores the deciding goal in a 1-0 win.

And as we all make our exit out of the bar and go off to start our respective days, it finally dawns on me. Soccer fandom may be far different from an aesthetic standpoint here in the U.S. then it is in Europe, but it’s all about what Jack said: the common bond.

When push comes to shove, all fans want the same thing and you don’t need to be a hooligan to want it any more.

So long as the score is in your favor at the end, isn’t that all that matters?

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*Featured Photo (above) credit to alriyadh.com