POV: Once, the World Cup was a coffeeshop affair. In the absence of live streaming and VPN, soccer fans would troop to the nearest screening centre to cheer (or jeer, depending on the players’ performance) for their favourite teams.
Today, we have the luxury of options. Legally or illegally, it’s become entirely too easy to catch the game while still snuggled up in bed in your PJs.
But for plenty of Singaporeans, making the trip to a local bar or a CC is, inexplicably, still a worthwhile venture — even at 3AM.
We sent our writers Alfie Kwa and Ilyda Chua, two football noobs, to a couple of World Cup hotspots to catch the quarter-finals and see what all the fuss was about.
Hopefully, their amateurish observations will help you decide if you should go out or stay home to catch the final.
CROATIA V BRAZIL, DEC. 9, 11PM
First half at CHIJMES
I never quite understood the football frenzy.
The FIFA World Cup, unlike other international sporting events, is broadcasted everywhere in Singapore.
Telcos screen the matches for customers who pay close to S$100 for a month’s worth of games and venues invite crowds to watch the matches late at night until early the next morning, showing just how many football fanatics there are.
So when I caught the game at CHIJMES, I expected the atmosphere, especially in the presence of alcohol, to be rowdy, noisy, and chaotic.
Screaming at the TV screens, non-stop chanting, and arguing about who was going to reign victorious.
But in reality, it wasn’t.
Perhaps, the game’s slow start caused viewers to slip into small talk, taking their focus away from the (in)action.
Or maybe, it was because of the men in dark blue polo t-shirts with the word “SECURITY” plastered on the back, walking around and controlling the crowd.
I arrived a few minutes before the match began, but already space was sparse.
Many were already seated in designated zones on the ground, demarcated by belt barriers, or at their reserved tables in the open-air bars.
Those standing and cheering along the walkways, including myself, were ushered to the side to not block the traffic.
The scene was very unlike the unruly supporters seen in other parts of the world.
The lawn, where most of the fans were, had at least five screens around, with the largest screen in front of the CHIJMES Hall (yeah, the white chapel).
Although those seated at the bars, Prive and El Mero Mero, seemed to be intently watching the match – with their seats positioned to optimally view the screen – they weren’t.
A group of local patrons were sipping on their Coronas and greeting their friends who just arrived — “Hey, how are you, bro?” — before chitchatting about their day.
Some were explaining what was happening to the football noobs at the table.
Person A said: “Why did the referee blow the whistle?”
Person B responded vaguely: “It’s a foul what.”
Which left person A still confused.
Looking at the number of yellow t-shirts in the crowd, there seemed to be more Brazil fans than Croatia ones.
Surprisingly, the Brazilian restaurant Carnivore was closed that night, showing no support for their home country.
A cluster of Brazil-supporting expatriates seated close to the screen were still in the midst of cheering their next drink when Brazil’s Neymar gained possession of the ball and drove it towards the goal.
As the group shouted “Come on, come on”, the crowd turned their heads towards the screen.
One of them began loudly blowing into horn as he cheered Brazil on.
On the pitch, Neymar’s run was halted by a tackle which the referee deemed a foul. The Brazilian superstar was awarded a freekick right outside the penalty box.
Tension built in the air as he lined up to kick the ball.
Yet it all ended anticlimactically when it flew harmlessly into the hands of Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
I walked up to an enthusiastic yellow-shirt fan and asked if she was from Brazil, only to find out that she is Russian and was just joining her friends in the World Cup craze.
The first half ended with zero goals.
Second half at West Coast CC
Meanwhile, halfway across the island, the energy in the usually-quiet West Coast CC was reaching a peak.
In contrast to the typical coffee-shop diaspora of middle-aged uncles, the demographic here was a lot more varied; I spotted more than a few kids, wrapped warmly in hoodies (it was a chilly night).
But despite the abundance of pyjamas and flip-flops, there was no semblance of sleepiness to be found. Instead, the atmosphere was tense with a thrumming undercurrent of excitement as the clock continued to tick down.
A lanyarded CC volunteer, who’d spent the first half of the game dutifully patrolling the aisle — perhaps to check for any alcohol, which wasn’t allowed since it was after 10pm — had long since switched to busily trading commentary with his peers, with all the energy and confidence of a die-hard fan.
The easy-going audience of the first half had been replaced with a crowd that was both frenetic and vicious, with less conciliatory applause and more muttered profanity at missed goals.
"Loser," someone taunted at a failed attempt. "Take your time lah, that's right, take your time!" another hollered.
The tension mounted as the game went into extra time. There was no more idle crinkling of chip bags, although I did catch a glimpse or two of a dark brown beer bottle.
"Grammy [sic] award ah?" someone jeered as a Croatia player fell over, clutching his shin in apparent agony. At a particularly close shot, the audience roiled: "Defend, defend, DEFEND!"
It's at that point when I — quite unused to staying up past midnight — made the mistake of drifting off.
Thankfully, I was startled awake by a tangible shift in the room's energy. And just a few moments later, Brazil's Neymar powered into the box — "GOAL!" the crowd roared.
Even children were not spared, leaping up with seemingly boundless effervescence, despite it certainly being past their bedtime.
Fast forward to 1:46am. Croatia had scored an equalising goal, a thrilling — and perplexing — 117th-minute feat.
The resident soccer noob, I ended up texting my colleagues frantically for help.
As a perceptive uncle earlier predicted, the game had gone into penalties.
Even I could never dream of falling asleep now.
Amid the syrup-thick tension, Brazilian defender Marquinhos stepped up....and slammed a penalty into the left-hand post.
It was met with the most deafening roar yet. People leaped up, fist-pumping the air and hugging each other. Even the stone-faced CC volunteer was no exception to the wild joy, his lanyard dancing with his animation — although I’m almost certain I saw a couple of fans engaging in a celebratory toast just a few rows away.
Whereas the night started out with a kind of subdued sterility, the triumph had managed to surgically remove all traces of paiseh-ness from even the most stoic Singaporean. It was a heartwarming sight, watching total strangers embrace and pat each other on the back — one that suggested an increasingly elusive kampung spirit.
But every fairytale has its casualties. As their compatriots celebrated, fans in neon yellow stared gravenly at the screen. Others quietly left in defeat, not staying to watch the grief of their heroes. "F*ck," someone said without spirit. "I lost S$50."
ENGLAND V FRANCE, DEC. 11, 3AM
First half at Harry’s, Clarke Quay
By the time I arrived at Harry's — the ubiquitous spot for cheap drinks and live games — the bar was already full.
To be fair, it was a solid five minutes into the game, so maybe that one's on me.
My attempts at asking a harried-looking waiter for an outdoor seat went in vain; a white sign next to the bar announced that there are no seats available.
Resigned, I joined the growing crowd of latecomers standing around outside.
A quick once-over revealed that the bar's patrons were largely England-supporting expatriates, with more than a few sporting white-and-blue jerseys (and one dressed, inexplicably, in Irish leprechaun garb).
Unlike in the more family-friendly locations, beer ran freely. The crowd was consequently both more effusive and more restrained: the steady stream of alcohol loosened their tongues but softened their judgment, and there was more cheering than commentary.
Still, France's early success meant that the mood at the bar was largely sombre. Indeed, the biggest reaction I witnessed in the first half was when a table received its long-awaited beer tower.
Finally, France scored their first goal, breaking the stalemate. A handful of fans erupted into cheers, with a smattering of polite applause from the ever-gentlemanly English.
Meanwhile, a French fan — apparently quite comfortable in his victory — turned to me, beer-congenial, and asked if I’d like to sit. “You’ve been standing since the start of the match,” he observed.
When I politely declined, he asked what team I support. I told him England, and he gave me a conciliatory fist bump with only barely-suppressed glee. “I’m sorry, man,” he said.
But the spirits of my fellow England-supporters were not so easily crushed. Even as the time ran out, I spotted a few fans leading an (only slightly morose) cheer:
"Let's go, England! Let’s go, England!”
Second half at McDonald's Ang Mo Kio Park
In the heartland of Ang Mo Kio, resounding cheers and laughter were heard at 3am as a ragtag group of heartlanders watched the match.
Most of them had been there since the 11pm match between Morocco and Portugal, seeing the empty trays of discarded food packages left in front of them.
Fans were slurping on cold beverages as they watched from the sole television streaming the match.
I could not tell who was an England or French fan as none of them were in a national team jersey.
Instead, they donned simple t-shirts, Bermuda shorts with sandals or slippers – casual and comfortable.
It was only after the 53rd minute when England's captain Harry Kane was given a penalty kick that it became clear who were my allies of the night (I was supporting France).
“Come on la,” one fan shouted.
As he lined up for the penalty, the group started banging the tables creating a low drum that exploded as Kane scored.
Two in the audience of them leapt from their seats cheering and dancing as England had scored to level the scores at 1-1.
The rest remained silent.
The triumph quickly faded as France gained possession about 20 minutes later and Olivier Giroud headed the ball past the England’s goalkeeper.
The France fans were clapping their hands together, one had his arms in the air while he stomped his feet.
Even amid the ruckus, an uncle who had fallen asleep in the middle of the match did not wake up.
I turned around to find another man asleep at a table behind me. I can only assume they live nearby and decided to pop in.
At this point, things were not looking good for the Brits.
“I’ll go vegan if England wins,” a desperate England fan commented.
The 84th minute of the game gave that particular fan some hope that he would be able to continue eating meat when Kane was once again given the opportunity to score from the penalty spot.
Again, they banged the tables. Every second that passed, the crowd’s roar grew louder and louder.
Kane kicked the ball and it flew well over the goal.
The patrons were clearly divided – England fans had their hands on their heads, while a France fan booed Kane for a missed shot, giving him a thumbs down.
And yet, when a clip of French player Kylian Mbappe taunting Kane’s missed goal flashed on the screen, everyone in the room started laughing together.
kylian mbappe celebrating laughing after harry kane lost a penalty FRA ENG pic.twitter.com/omS608m24G— ِ (@tadaio) December 11, 2022
With the score at 2-1, in favour of France and less than 10 minutes left on the clock (including additional time), hope was almost entirely lost.
“I’m going to the semi-finals bro,” a France fan said mockingly to his friend of the opposing persuasion.
Resolute, the England supporter responded that his team had the “Netherlands spirit” — a reference to how Holland had scored from a freekick in the last minute of the quarter-finals game the night before, equalising the match.
Unfortunately for him, England missed their final freekick, and the whistle blew.
“I bet 3-2,” a fan laughed at how far off his gamble was.
Almost immediately, reality kicked in. It was at 5am and the fans felt the fatigue of being awake at such an ungodly hour.
They gave a final hooray and smiled at their companions of the night before pouring out of the McDonald’s.
Even those who were sound asleep got up and left.
Within a minute, the parking lots were emptied and the enthusiastic fans were nowhere to be seen.
That strange camaraderie
I’d be the first to admit that I blanched when my editor assigned me this article.
With neither talent nor interest in any athletic endeavours, the appeal of sports entertainment has always been a mystery to me.
After all, why would I care about the triumph or defeat of a football team from the other side of the planet?
As such, staying up to watch a 3am match in a sports bar on a weekend night seemed — to my uninitiated self — like pure, unadulterated masochism.
But I think I understand a little better now. Even as an ignorant outsider, I could sense an undeniable magnetism in the room. That bated breath while waiting for a penalty, that irresistible sympathy of a failed goal, the secondhand euphoria of an unexpected triumph.
And still more than that. The unselfconscious way in which strangers from different echelons of society come together, call each other “brother” just because for that precious hour and a half, they’re on the same side. That unique, mystifying ability of sport to break boundaries and tear down walls.
Even as I write this, one memory stands out. After halftime, I re-entered the sports hall.
It was a few minutes into the second half of the Brazil-Croatia match, and I was looking around for an empty seat near the back, trying not to look too conspicuous.
Outside, people might have averted their eyes; here in Singapore, we have a kind of tacit mind-your-own-business understanding when it comes to public spaces, I feel.
An uncle approached me. “You want to sit behind?” he asked Unsmiling, but not unfriendly.
“Uh, yeah,” I said sheepishly.
“Can take a chair from the front,” he said while helping to drag a red plastic chair over to where I was.
“Careful,” he cautioned, gesturing to the electrical box above me, “when you stand up, watch your head ah.”
“Okay. Thanks, thanks,” I said. He continued to eye me concernedly as I sat down; in that moment, I was not a stranger, but a member of that invisible community.
“Careful ah,” he said again.
“Careful. Watch your head. Watch your head.”
Image derived from photos by Alfie Kwa, Ilyda Chua, and Fauzan Saari via Unsplash.