World Cup fever has not, exactly, gripped Providence.
But the small clutch of soccer fans who gathered at Ri Ra Irish Pub and Restaurant just off Kennedy Plaza on a recent Friday morning for the opening match between South Af-rica and Mexico flashed the special exuberance of those in on a delicious secret.
Cristina Mota, a recent graduate of the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, was particularly engaged in the contest. Her mother, a Mexican immigrant, had called early from California to make sure she was finding her way to a television set.
“She said, ‘Your brother’s been up since 5:30, where are you?’ ” Mota said. “I was like, ‘I’m going, I’m going.’ ”
Much of Mota’s family had taken the day off from work. They were cracking beers by 5 am Pacific time, she said. But Mota would not imbibe this morning. She would just watch. Nervously.
Derek Andelloux, finishing up the first year of his residency with Brown’s family medicine program, was not so shy about saddling up to the bar. He had just come off a 24-hour shift.
And shortly after arriving, he started talking up a French team that had barely squeezed into the tourney when a blatant hand ball by star player Thierry Henry led to a goal in a decisive qualifying match against Ireland.
Ri Ra manager Paul Pereira quickly reminded Andelloux that he was sitting in an Irish pub — “whatever you do, don’t mention France too much,” he said quietly — and the doc desisted. He didn’t want the Guinness tap to run dry, after all.
But his friend Sheldon Malcolm, a first-year resident sitting one bar stool over, was not feeling quite so reticent — promptly informing the barkeep of Andelloux’s Franco-philia.
The ESPN announcers were, at first, skeptical that a South African team known as Bafana Bafana (the Boys, the Boys) could hang with the superior Mexican squad: “The Boys, the Boys have got to do a man’s job here.”
But the team was playing surprisingly well early. A near-goal in the 31st minute had most of the assembled whooping — and Mota shaking her head.
To her right sat, perhaps, the most knowledgeable fan in the bar. His regular pronouncements on the wisdom of Mexican substitutions were welcome. But, he acknowledged, he probably belonged elsewhere: “I’m supposed to be working across the street,” he said.
He did not give his name.
Jen Buckley, another first-year resident, did not have to worry about work responsibilities, having just completed a 30-hour shift. But she admitted to being a little delirious from lack of sleep. “Soccer players,” she said at one point, “are the hottest men on earth.”
Mota appeared crestfallen in the 55th minute when Siphiwe Tshabalala rocketed a shot into the upper right corner of the net to give the South Africans, hosting the first-ever World Cup on African soil, a 1-0 lead.
But in the 79th minute Mexico’s Rafael Marquez evened the score, averting disaster. The Ri Ra crowd offered Mota their congratulations. And the graduate, fielding a call from her mother, seemed relieved.