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The 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar has been a whirlwind with plenty of twists and turns. Morocco stunned the world by becoming the first African country to reach the semi-finals in the cup’s 92-year history while Mexico failed to advance to the round of 16 for the first time since 1978. Argentina shocked fans everywhere by losing its first match to Saudi Arabia but regained its footing and will face off against France in Sunday’s final.
Like previous world cups, this year’s has been controversial. In 2010, Qatar won the bid to host the tournament but FIFA’s decision was swiftly contested as the Middle Eastern country was accused of bribing officials. In the years that followed, human rights organizations and media documented Qatar’s use of forced migrant labor to build stadiums and other facilities. Critics have also decried Qatar’s record on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. Despite all this, FIFA announced the games have achieved record-breaking TV audience numbers.
Oaklanders, many with ties to the participating countries, have also kept their eyes glued to the cup to watch their nation vie for the most coveted trophy in international soccer. Others, however, have opted to not watch the matches despite having a deep love for the sport.
We spoke to three Oakland residents about the nature of national pride, what football means to them, and the controversies surrounding this year’s World Cup.
Javis’s Cooking, an Argentine restaurant on Market Street in West Oakland, has been the go-to place for Argentines to watch their national team in this year’s world cup. The South American nation is set to the French reigning champions this Sunday. Owner Javier Sandes, who is from the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, built a parklet for the purpose of hosting World Cup watch parties and has been amazed to see so many Argentinians come out and celebrate. “There’s not really a big Argentine community here in Oakland, but people have been coming from all over the Bay Area to watch the games,” Sandes said. “It’s absolutely amazing!”
Sandes recently commissioned Pancho Pescador, a longtime Oakland artist from Chile, to paint an Argentina themed mural on the side of the restaurant. The mural features two Argentine football legends: World Cup winner Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi, who is competing this year in what is his last chance to win the greatest soccer competition. The mural was completed in November before the tournament began.
“I’m really proud of the work he [Pancho] has done. I can’t stop looking at it,” Sandes said.
For Sandes, hosting watch parties at his restaurant in the city which he now considers his home combines two passions: food and his first love, football.
“The World Cup is the biggest event on earth and it makes me really happy to see all these cultures in the Bay Area come together,” Sandes said. “Just having a place for people to watch is really special and it doesn’t matter who wins, right? It just so happens that my country is in the finals, which is amazing!”
Sandes spent his teenage years playing for Club Atletico Ituzaingo, a local football club in Buenos Aires. But in 2001, when he was 23, he was approached with an offer to play for the-now defunct Patten University on a scholarship. Sandes had never heard of the East Oakland school or the city of Oakland before.
“I had no idea where I was coming and I didn’t speak the language,” he said.
2001 was a critical year in Argentina’s development as the country was going through an economic crisis. Many Argentinians found themselves needing to migrate to seek out work, like Sandes. That same year, a 13-year-old Lionel Messi also made the decision to move to Spain with his father to pursue his football dreams.
“We are hoping the best for him; we think he can do it,” Sandes said, referring to the fact that Messi has yet to win a World Cup, even though some consider him the greatest player of all time.
Sandes played for Patten University for about two years before the squad was disbanded due to financial reasons. Undeterred, he continued to play semi-professionally in various minor soccer leagues throughout the Bay Area. “I played football until about 2009. That’s when I suffered another big injury in my knee ligaments for the third time,” Sandes said.
The decision to give up playing competitively was difficult for Sandes. “Having the passion my entire life for the sport and being actively involved in it, it was so hard,” he said. “In order to distract myself, I started cooking and my friends pushed me to open a restaurant, even though I didn’t have the experience.”
In 2009, Sandes and those friends opened Primo Parrilla, a food truck serving Argentine grilled food. Sandes then opened Javi’s Cooking in 2012 as a wholesale and catering business. He eventually opened his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2018 on Market Street. Sandes recently opened a new restaurant, Javi’s Empanadas on Broadway.
“It’s home now. I do miss my home in Argentina and I go there once a year to visit my family,” Sandes said, “but definitely Oakland is home.”
Cricket might be England’s national sport but growing up in Oxford, Max Brimelow’s social life revolved around soccer, which the British call football. “I’ve pretty much played football as long as my memory extends,” Brimelow said. “I still remember some of the goals that I made in primary school.”
Brimelow, 28, is an avid Arsenal F.C. fan, a London-based team playing in the English Premier League. When he moved to the East Bay in 2018 to attend UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, his beloved sport served as a reminder of home. When a new Premier League season starts every August, Brimelow wakes up at 4 a.m. to watch matches due to the eight-hour time difference between California and the U.K. As an Oakland resident, Brimelow has also found community by meeting up with other Arsenal fans—affectionately known as “Gooners”— to watch matches at the Athletic Club Oakland downtown.
The men’s World Cup has also provided some milestone moments in Brimelow’s life though he notes that England’s record has caused him some pain. “I remember when Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany [in the 2010 men’s World Cup in Africa] bounced into the goal off the crossbar but didn’t get given. Not a fond memory but definitely a distinctive memory,” Brimelow quipped.
As he’s gotten older, Brimelow says he’s become more aware of the controversies surrounding the prestigious tournament. FIFA’s decision to make Qatar the host country for 2022 was a boiling point for him.
“The ethics around the World Cup is too troubling for me to enjoy the sport, and I’ve never experienced that before,” he said. The only game that Brimelow watched was England’s match against the United States, and even that felt bittersweet. “The human rights abuses and lack of care for LGBTQ rights and the corruption within FIFA have made it too much for me to enjoy watching football the way I normally would.”
Brimelow was also critical of his country’s lukewarm attempts to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Qatar criminalizes LGBTQ persons and so seven European nations, including England, intended to have each of their squad’s captains wear a “OneLove” armband during the tournament.
The band featured a rainbow-colored heart with the number “1” inside the heart, and the word “love” placed right beside it. But the teams ditched this plan after FIFA banned the symbol and threatened to give each captain a yellow card if worn—a punishment that would have slightly impacted their ability to win games by making it more likely one of their players could be dismissed if they fouled someone.
“I felt that it was a little bit weak-willed of them,” said Brimelow.
This past month, Brimelow has struggled with separating his love of football from this controversial cup because, as an immigrant from a football-loving country, the sport has kept him grounded. “It’s been a really valuable part of my life and it’s intensified since the pandemic,” Brimelow said. “The longer I live here, the more I kind of use that as a way of connecting back to my roots in England.”
Joel Tena and his family are, without a doubt, a soccer family. They frequent matches whenever possible, and Tena fervently follows Mexico’s Liga MX games and national team. He has been watching this year’s World Cup with his wife and teenage son. Tena didn’t expect much from the Mexican national team as he said their performance had dipped in recent years, so even though Mexico lost in the group stages, his family has continued to follow the tournament.
“My son called soccer his first love so I knew I had to up my game if I was going to help him navigate the world he was growing into,” Tena said.
The Los Angeles native and Oakland resident of more than 20 years, Tena grew up a baseball fan, and that’s where his loyalties lay for many years. Tena’s love of “America’s favorite past-time” is intertwined with his Mexican-American heritage.
“There’s a thing that people talk about which is if you’re Mexican, or of Mexican descent, and your family came after WWII, then you’re probably into soccer,” he said. “If they came before WWII then you’re probably into baseball. My family came well before that.”
His grandfather, who in the 1930s was a farmer in Southern California’s Inland Empire, played baseball recreationally in farm worker leagues. Tena also grew up playing baseball and eventually introduced his son to the sport as well.
“He was interested in baseball but as soon as someone threw him a soccer ball, it was over,” Tena said.
Over time, Tena and his wife, who is Indian and Filipino, both grew to love the sport that their son fell in love with. The couple also feels that soccer is a great vehicle to teach their son about other cultures and how other countries function politically.
“It’s been important for us to raise our son with this perspective, not in isolation, so he can not only learn about his own heritage and traditions but also the world,” Tena said.