Place InvadersOnce upon a time, in a strange, strange land, expatriates and American soldiers roamed freely among the Dunkin' Donuts, Paris Baguettes and Burger Kings in a place called Itaewon. Then one day, intruders came.
They rode into town and with curious accents took siege of the district's dark, smoky bars. For eight hours, the foreigners gathered in wood-paneled pubs to dance jigs, sing songs and scream wildly at the images of young, athletic men in shorts that appeared on every television screen. The natives had no choice but to succumb to the boisterous strangers and wait for the hysteria to cease. The following is a true story of one afternoon and evening in Itaewon, under siege by the Invasion of the Soccer People.
3:01 p.m. -- Thirty minutes before Nigeria and Sweden square off, the first match of the day, fans begin to drift into the Nashville Skyline. Without much to do around the shiny wooden bar, the two dozen patrons on hand discuss theology ("Soccer is the national religion in Denmark") and medicine ("I would rather have a frontal lobotomy than sing karaoke"). As Nigeria and Sweden take the field in Kobe, Japan, the thirsty hordes in the Nashville raise their mugs and take long, savory sips, the first of many.
5:21 p.m. -- "I'm a soccer head," Ann Manchester tells two locals in the Seoul Pub. Then she shows them 20 red, white and blue nails on her hands and feet. They offer startled laughs and return to a booth in the corner. But as they reach their seats, a goal is scored on television and the bar breaks into pandemonium: Thumping and jumping followed a chorus of shouts. The locals run out the back door.
7:05 p.m. -- Midway through Spain's match with Paraguay, seven large Americans in the Three Alley Pub order another round of Heineken and what appears to be a plate holding half a cow. After inhaling this repast, they burst into song.
Po-land, you were attacked from the east
Po-land, you were attacked from the west
Po-land, you are Europe's crossroads
E-ven the Mon-gols took you
In homes all across Itaewon, the bellowing sends small children to their mothers' legs.
7:47 p.m. -- In Geckos, the invasion reaches full throttle. Two Korean security guards stand watch outside the bar, prepared for whatever disaster might ensue. Inside, at least 100 crazed souls in England jerseys have created a wall around the large-screen television, using tables and chairs, while awaiting the Argentina-England match. The Union Jack hanging nearby informs everyone that Geckos does not belong to Itaewon any longer.
8:20 p.m. "We will rock you!" British fans scream into the gray air inside Geckos. In return, some South American fans belt out, "Ole, ole, ole." The Englishmen scowl before retaliating with a strong, "En-gland, En-gland." The temperature rises, the lights dim and, finally, England and Argentina do battle.
9:14 p.m -- England's Michael Owen falls to the ground. Everyone lining Geckos rises to his feet. "Eng-a-land," the Brits yell as the referee places the ball on the penalty mark. Behind a veil of smoke, hundreds of drunken eyes peer longingly at the screen.
9:15 p.m. -- "GOOOAAALLL!" Dancing, crying, wailing and howling welcome David Beckham's penalty kick. 1-0 England.
9:40 p.m. -- One of the television screens at Three Alley Pub suddenly blinks off. "Massive disappointment," says Neville Vincent as he pulls a red and white flag tightly around his shoulders, his eyes shell-shocked. Someone at the bar offers to fix the screen and while that is happening about 35 desperate souls hurry outside and across the street to watch England-Argentina through the windows of Le Saint-Ex Bistro. "And now we're watching an England game in a French restaurant," Mr. Vincent mutters with disgust.
As the devoted fill the alleyway, causing the decibel level to soar, two small girls in pink dresses and on their way home scurry past the throng. As they run by, the little girls hold their hands over their ears.
10:32 p.m. -- England hangs on to win, 1-0, causing hugs and kisses to travel around the Hollywood bar. In the back of the bar, Roberto Rojas, 33, nervously squeezes the fabric of his blue and white Argentina jersey. "I'm happy England won," he says. "I would have had to run home and change my shirt. I'm not that big." He orders a round of congratulatory kamikazis to ensure that the English fans do not turn on him.
11:01 p.m. -- In Hollywood, the big television screen is pulled up, disco lights come on and trance music once again fills the bar. As the soccer hysteria fades, the natives come out of hiding. For one more day Itaewon has survived the invasion.
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