Welcome to New York City's Football Church
Nervousness was in the patrons’ faces at Nevada Smith’s on a recent afternoon. Their eyes transfixed to the screens mounted on the walls of this East Village pub, they nervously watched AC Milan and Arsenal London step onto the field for the first knockout round of the Champions League, soccer’s most prestigious club competition.
At kick-off, the tension burst into a storm of applause. Immediately, the Italians reminded the Arsenal fans that Milan is the current titleholder. “Il campioni del Europa siamo noi (We are the champions of Europe),” they chant. The Arsenal supporters only a few feet away responded by shouting their team’s name, clapping and jumping in unison. To the melody of “Rule, Britannia!” they sang, “Come on, Arsenal. We’re proud to say your name. When we’ll sing this song we’ll win the game.”
The noise wouldn’t be uncommon for a European soccer stadium, but these scenes regularly unfold at Nevada Smith’s, New York’s most popular soccer bar. Up to 500 people pack the pub during European Champions League games. Countless more come in every weekend to watch live soccer from the world’s best leagues. At a time when professional soccer is still lacking widespread attention in the U.S., the pub is the mecca for New Yorkers and expatriates passionate about “real football.”
“I was told this is the bar every football fan in the city goes to,” said Andrew Stone, an Arsenal season-ticket holder on vacation in New York. “The bar went crazy just like at an Arsenal home game.”
The Englishman was one of many native Londoners at Nevada Smith’s. He walked in at 12:45 p.m. when the bar opened its doors. What he saw was a yet empty pub with no chairs to leave enough room for the crowds soon to arrive. Opposite to the entrance hung a large screen showing soccer highlights. On the bar to the left countless plastic cups were stacked to serve 20 different draft beers from around the world. The “wall of fame” on the right was adorned with jerseys worn and hand-signed by the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Landon Donovan and Cristiano Ronaldo. Fifteen flat screen TVs on two different floors showed three of the four Champions League matches live.
Two hours later, the bar was filled to capacity and the crowd’s multi-lingual chanting, cursing and celebrating had turned it into a European football temple. The shades had been pulled down and the lights lowered, creating an authentic European game night atmosphere. The multinational fans enthusiastically commented every game situation with “come on son,” “bloody hell” or “va bene!” The floor vibrated every time a goal unleashed a wave of celebrations. Emotions ran highest when Arsenal strikers Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor scored to knock Milan out of the competition.
“It feels like home,” said a native Londoner who lives in Harlem and had called in sick at work to watch the game. “There’s nothing like it here.” His fellow supporters in Arsenal colors outnumbered the Milanese since Nevada Smith’s is home to an official Arsenal supporters club. The bar hosts a dozen more fan clubs, including those of English giants Chelsea London and Manchester United, France’s Olympique Marseille and Spain’s FC Barcelona, whose president, Juan Laporta, visited the pub last September.
“The strengths of the bar are the supporters clubs,” said Jack Keane, director of football at Nevada Smith’s. “We’re the only bar in the world that houses supporters clubs of the three major British teams, Arsenal, Chelsea and ManU.” Keane, who opened the pub 15 years ago, said he was surprised by the lack of soccer broadcasts when he first came to the U.S., and began showing two English Premier League games a week in 1995.
During the first couple years, nobody came to watch soccer at the bar on Third Avenue. But Keane refused to show anything else. “We let nothing come in the way of football,” Keane said. “As a result that’s what we are.” Today, Nevada Smith’s shows 100 live matches from around the world every week and no other sports are broadcasted.
The pub shows 25 live games on Saturdays alone. Starting at 7 a.m., devoted fans stream into what they call “the church” and watch 12 full hours of live coverage. In addition, Nevada Smith’s is one of the official bars for Red Bull New York. It shows every Red Bull match live and occasionally players stop by to watch games. Over the years, the bar’s reputation has also attracted celebrities, including rock legend and soccer fan Rod Stewart and Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a Manchester United fan who was a regular when he spent time at the U.N. during his days as mayor of Jerusalem.
As a result of its popularity, Nevada Smith’s has completely outgrown its capacity and is looking to move into a bigger complex by summer of 2009. “On a day like this we could fill the place three times over,” Keane said. “We are bursting out of our seams.” He hopes to find a place at least twice the size.
The bar’s motto “Where Football is Religion” isn’t just a marketing slogan. For Keane and most of the pub’s customers soccer is more than a sport. “It’s a life saver,” Keane said. “It keeps you sane.” Keane said he couldn’t understand why “in a country were it doesn’t get the attention it deserves, the one sport that can put the U.S. on a world stage is by and large ignored.” He believes some of the animosity towards the U.S. comes from its “isolation away from the playground of the world, which is soccer.”
Keane hopes that within the next ten to 15 years, a new crop of American youngsters will embrace the game. Up until then, those who already do continue to turn Nevada Smith’s into New York City’s “football church.”