Olney: Soccer and Culture at Cafe Liz

A local patron of Cafe Liz heads to watch the soccer match.
Brothers Nicolaus and Filinto Marques serving their loyal customers

Bellies up to the bar and cold beers in front of them, brothers Victor and Louis Martins cannot agree. Outside, Philadelphia’s first heat wave of the summer is as good a reason as any to hide out at the local watering hole, but the pair is not here to escape the sun. On the other side of the room, some of the world’s finest athletes are dancing across the large projection screen that covers an entire wall of the tiny corner bar. One of the magicians on the screen, a young man dressed in red, is the subject of their argument.

“He’s good, but he’s never won anything,” says Victor, the older of the pair. “Greatest player in the world, but he’s never won the big one.”

“And so now UEFA [Champion’s League] is nothing? He won it only two weeks ago,” Louis interjects. The argument, of course, is for the benefit of the reporter standing nearby. If it were not, the bickering would be in another language.

The scene could be repeated in thousands of corner dives in thousands of neighborhoods throughout the world. As it happens, this one is taking place at the bar of Café Liz at the intersection of Tabor Road and Lawrence Street in Olney. While most Philadelphians are well versed in sports debates concerning the likes of Jimmy Rollins or Donavan McNabb, the subject of Victor and Louis’ argument is a little more obscure. Area residents born in Portugal, the brothers Martins are debating the value of Cristiano Ronaldo, oft-proclaimed the world’s greatest soccer player and winger for the Portuguese national team.

In fact, Ronaldo’s value is of particular concern in this bar, on this day. The Portuguese, fresh off a fourth-place finish at the 2006 World Cup, are playing their first match in group play of the 2008 Euro Cup, a grueling tournament played for continental bragging rights and the chance to vie for the next World Cup in 2010. To Victor and Louis, as well as several dozens of their neighbors packed into Café Liz, the very fate of Portugal rests on Ronaldo’s shoulders.

Café Liz, owned by another Portuguese native Filinto Marques, is the place to congregate when one’s concerns mirror those of Victor and Louis. Located just a block south of the neighborhood’s central commercial district, the restaurant and bar serve as haven for the Portuguese community. As with most of the non-American world, one of the most-welcome reasons for gathering is simply “joga bonita,” which in Portuguese means the beautiful game.

“[This place is a] center for soccer in Philadelphia,” says Marques in the quiet of his restaurant, located directly above the rousing tumult of the bar below. “We have all seasons, all over the world. I have 12 satellites on my roof, so we can catch every game.” While the bar may not be this crowded every game day, he says. “When Portugal plays, everybody watch the game over here.”

“Everybody” does not seem like much of an exaggeration. As early as four hours before kickoff, the crowd begins streaming in. Victor and Louis are some of the first arrivals, followed by a score of others, both young and old. The beer, more often than not, is Portuguese; the fare is distinctly Portuguese; the language is, well, you guessed it. In a flurry of unfamiliar words punctuated by culture-bridging smiles, Marques and bartender Jose Jeronimo serve plate after plate of traditional Portuguese cuisine, all of it on the house. Yet while the free food and drink illustrate the close-knit nature of a culture and a community, as Marques predicted most patrons come for only one reason.

“I’m here to watch the game,” says Felix Fernandes, a younger fan born in the United States. Fernandes is typical of the fans packing into the bar. Drink in hand and smile breaking easily across his face, he does not hesitate when asked who is his favorite player. “Oh, Ronaldo, of course,” he says laughing. “The Portuguese have a lot of young blood in there, but they just need to learn how to work with each other.”

A local patron of Cafe Liz heads to watch the soccer match.
A local patron of Cafe Liz heads to watch the soccer match.

In that sense, the favorite team may reflect the neighborhood in which these fans live and work. Long known as a cultural melting pot, the Olney area is home to a wide array of ethnicities, ranging from African-American to Caucasian, Asian-American to Hispanic. The Portuguese, like many others, have found their niche in the community, maintaining their own cultural identity while branching out into one of the most diverse areas of Philadelphia.

Two patrons in particular are indicative of this social cross-section. At one end of the bar, sitting shoulder to shoulder are the only two men in the room not donned in Portuguese red, yellow and green. Like Victor and Louis, Willie and James Jenkins are a pair of brothers enjoying a drink at the bar. Yet unlike Victor and Louis, the Jenkins brothers, African-American residents from the neighborhood, know almost nothing about soccer. The fact that they are not Portuguese, however, seems to bother no one.

“My wife is getting a tattoo,” James explains, “and I’m not sitting in the [the tattoo parlor], I’m looking for a bar.” While they admit to not watching much soccer and joke that they might like to see an NBA finals game play out across the screen instead, neither brother can deny the welcoming environment at Café Liz.

“We didn’t get any racial slurs when we came in here,” James says. “We’re the only blacks in here, and [some people] will give you a stare or look at you.” The atmosphere in the bar and in their eyes, typifies the attitude of the neighborhood. “You see that a lot around here, with all the different people around. This is life and we gotta live together.

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