Football / World Cup USA '94: Cops and firemen are Big Apple's friendly rivals: As the Irish and Italians prepare to meet today, local supporters declare their loyalties. Rogan Taylor reports from New York

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The Independent Online
AT Mustang Sally Bar on the corner of 7th Avenue and 28th Street, preparations have been going on for some time. At the push of a remote-control button, Simon Kearney, the Irish owner, can drop two large screens from the ceiling to show the World Cup matches live for his customers. He's expecting to be quite busy. By this morning, up to 20,000 Irish fans could be in town, half of them without tickets for the big match.

The other side of Broadway, and a few blocks south, 'Little Italy' is festooned in flags and banners. The New York Italian community is talking of anything from 30,000 to 100,000 tifosi arriving, most with a relative somewhere among the quarter of a million Italians already living here. The word is the Italians have got the lion's share of the tickets for today's match with Ireland, some of which are trading on the streets for up to dollars 1,000 ( pounds 657) apiece.

Outside the bars, there are novel signs - at least to English eyes - which read: 'Football fans especially welcome', and, unlike in Italy at the last World Cup, alcohol will be served up to, during, and long after the match. The city that never sleeps never shuts its bars either, not even if the English football fans were coming.

In Italy, during the first round of the last World Cup, the English and Irish fans went out on the town together the night before the two teams met in Sardinia. There was no aggro then. The English weren't in the mood (saving themselves, as it turned out, for the rendezvous with the Netherlands

later). And anyway, the Irish rarely look like suitable opponents for any hooligans. An eclectic horde of men, women and children, they never for a moment look more threatening than a charabanc of day trippers arriving in Blackpool, circa 1955.

But there was a contest that night in Sardinia. It was a singing competition in the friendliest bar on the island. Actually, it was no contest at all; the Irish supporters wiped the floor with their English opponents. Talk about cultural impoverishment; it was embarrassing. The English only had a couple of songs to sing - and one of those was 'Land of Hope and Glory'. The Irish seemed to have hundreds. They sang the lads in white shirts off the park.

The Italians, of course, are a different proposition. Along with the Irish, these are two of the most enthusiastic singing nations around. Already, minor skirmishes havetaken place in bars in Central Manhattan. It's 'Danny Boy' versus 'O Solo Mio' or, as one neutral New Yorker put it: 'It's the city's cops versus the firemen.' The Irish choirs, reinforced by the arrival of dozens of jumbo jets from Dublin, are winning the day so far. They've been coming in waves all week, boisterous and friendly. It's like a rolling public relations show: a circus parade of emerald-green T-shirts letting the residents know Big Jack and his boys are coming to town. They feel it's almost a home match. Why, isn't half of New York Irish anyway?

Not just New York, apparently. Some 40 million Americans claim Irish descent and the arrival of the Irish team re-emphasises these old identities. 'It will be like St Patrick's Day for a month,' one New York Irishman said. 'Even the Italians will be claiming some Irish ancestors.'

Around Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx, the Italian community has taken over a neighbourhood once dominated by the Irish. The two immigrant groups have shared the city for many generations in reasonable harmony. People from both, largely Catholic, communities have frequently intermarried, and today's match has some of the hallmarks of an English derby game: families with split loyalties watching television, sharing the same settee, but wearing different colours.

At work, too, Italians and Irish have to rub shoulders. At Elaine's Bar on Second Avenue, the head waiter Giacomo Lodi, whose nephew Luigi Apolloni is in the Italian squad, at least has a ticket for the game, which is more than his Irish bar staff can claim between them. He has a photograph of his famous nephew pinned to his waistcoat for the evening shift.

But, of course, New York isn't half Irish or half Italian any more, if it ever was. These days it's largely Hispanic or black. The Hispanic community has arrived more recently and maintains a strong enthusiasm for football, yet the city as a whole still seems largely unaware of the impending World Cup. It's like arriving at a party where the hosts forgot to invite themselves.

With an expected global television audience of up to two billion, American businesses find the worldwide soccer market increasingly hard to ignore. But for most of America, the World Cup looks like hardly registering on the

Richter scale of sporting entertainment. Fifa may be around dollars 300m better off at the end of it all - and no doubt that's why we're here - but though football may have opened the wallets of the sponsors, it does not look like entering the souls of Americans. They have more than enough distractions already.

New York, for example, turns over big sports events faster than a street corner stall does hamburgers. Just this week, the city's ice hockey team, the New York Rangers, won the Stanley Cup at Madison Square Garden, claiming a

trophy that had eluded them for 54 years, and triggering a ticker- tape reception on Seventh Avenue like the end of World War Two.

At the same venue, the following night, the Knicks, the local basketball team, had a huge crunch game in another series, and the New York Mets seem to play baseball every night. So what's so special about this soccer game on a Saturday afternoon?

Really one cannot imagine any of the world's cities outside of North America not being dominated by an event like the World Cup. Yet, despite the hordes of football fans already here, and the long-standing presence of the Irish and Italian communities in the city, New York looks as if, like the rest of America, it will gladly 'do the business' but keep its heart well away from its wallet.

(Photographs omitted)