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Jun 13, 2014

A pizza joint with a purpose

The scene at El Cuartito during Thursday's World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia.
The scene at El Cuartito during Thursday's World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia.

BUENOS AIRES -- The first match approached while we rode in a cab through the rain.

My translator, Leo, and I checked our watches; we'd finished our last interview of the day and, work done, rushed toward El Cuartito, a beloved pizza joint filled with sports memorabilia, to settle in front of a screen. The streets of the city weren't dead, some people still had jobs and lives, but every shop was empty, except for the poor suckers who had to work, in which case you could see them buried in television sets. Through the radio, we heard the Croatian national anthem, then the Brazilian national anthem sung by the home crowd. We heard a sound that exists only before a truly big game: a droning roar broadcast around the world through field microphones not equipped to handle so much noise. I love that sound. Nothing compares to the energy of a packed, waiting stadium, and in the final minutes before kickoff, the madness feels eternal. Then, when it's over, not only can you not resummon it, you can't even remember what it felt like at all.

The city crackled with the sense of an approaching storm.

In the back of the cab, the game started. We drove past the national Congress and saw the huge television mounted to the side of the Belle Époque building broadcasting the game. The locals felt a deep stake in this match: A Brazil loss runs a close second to an Argentina win, so everyone wanted Brazil to lose, including Leo, a normally calm, measured guy. About 10 blocks from the restaurant, when Croatia scored, or rather, when Brazil scored against itself, Leo turned briefly into an animal, fists clinched, biceps flexed, double pumping his arms. Then he seemed almost embarrassed, smiling a bit sheepishly: 1-0, Croatia.

That was the score when we found a table in the restaurant. The room tilted; people sat only on the side of the table facing the television. The waiter brought cold draft beers in heavy mugs, which had ships on them, a meaningless detail but one I'll never forget for some reason. Those two hours are the reason I've come to South America for this tournament and the reason sports take hold of our lives so much: The games aren't the thing we're after, just merely the vehicle to give us the thing. (I'm writing this in the warm glow of the moment, so forgive the self-indulgence, although I suspect you feel this same way about the games you love.)

Wright's order for the night? Fugazetta -- the local specialty pizza made of cheese and topped with charred, sweet onions.
Wright's order for the night? Fugazetta -- the local specialty pizza made of cheese and topped with charred, sweet onions.

We ordered fugazetta -- the local specialty pizza made of loads of gooey cheese and topped with charred, sweet onions -- and leaned into the television. The man at the table in front of us cut his wine with soda water to make it last longer and pounded on the table when Neymar dribbled the ball out of bounds and the referee didn't call it. The black sport coat ordered another huge bottle of Quilmes beer. We ordered another round, and Brazil scored to tie the game.

Two guys came in from the rain.

The fat one wore an ascot with medals of saints hanging from his belt.

The skinny one wore a suit.

"What's the score?" the skinny one asked.

"1-1," Leo told him.

The skinny one handed a wad of cash to the fat one and they ordered a bottle of champagne. Both kept checking their phones and pouring glasses.

"Today," the skinny one said, "we are all Croatians."

Our table looked like a cholesterol battle ground, with the remains of burnt onions that somehow exited the pizza between plate and mouth, and the rings and puddles of beer sweat and stray strings of melted cheese. We ordered more pizza and beer, and Leo and I decided that during the next month, as we travel around telling stories, we need to make sure to not forget why we're here: to watch the World Cup, to swim in its sea of madness. Later, walking to an ATM to get cash to pay our bill, I pass packed cafes and bars with people pressed up against the plate-glass windows, smoking cigarettes in the rain.

Then, with a call that looked like a clear fix from an Argentine bar, Brazil broke the tie on a questionable penalty kick and the men around us pounded the table in disgust. The television showed Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff doing a woot-woot-woot-style fist pump. Brazil scored again to seal it, and we paid our tab and stepped out into the rain, headed back to the hotel.

Another month of this remained.

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