Okay, try this: What if, at the end of the NFL season, the worst team in the league didn’t get the #1 draft pick and a Participation medal that said, “Better luck next time?” What if you took the three worst teams (Carolina, Denver and Arizona, for example) and banished them to a lower league where the crowds were smaller, the TV money was nonexistent, and high-priced free agents wouldn’t want anything to do with you even if you could pay them? The losers would be replaced by the three best teams from that lower league (Tuscon, Des Moines and Albany, for argument’s sake), and the losers would only get back to the NFL if they actually made the changes they needed to be a good team again.
Work for you? That’s the way it works in the Barclay’s English Premiership, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, and other fuβbol leagues around the world. It’s not “Go Big, or Go Home.” It’s “Go Big, or You’re Gone!” If the NFL worked that way, Al Davis would be a vague memory.
Unlike the NFL and Major League Baseball, fuβbol (aka “soccer”) is worldwide. It’s bigger, more popular, more dramatic, more suspenseful, and a much better day wasted than waiting around for Manny Ramirez or Chad Johnson-nee-Ochocinco-nee-Johnson to do something extraordinary. I know, soccer is basically a youth sport in America (if you don’t count the US National team, which beat a better-on-paper England side in the recent World Cup), but how many people around the world – not just youths, people – are laying out a diamond in a field so they can play nine innings? Bet it’s fewer than the people in that same field kicking the ball around.
Which brings me to Wolff’s Biergarten, the epicenter of fuβbol love in the Capital Region. As proof, I submit this picture from my cell phone during the World Cup Final between Spain and the Netherlands. (See below) If it looks like bedlam, it was. It wasn’t Standing Room Only, it was Screaming Room Only. I spent two hours stuffed in a corner with Bob Forget and three Spanish girls who were in love with Cesc Fabregas, and it was the best time I’ve ever had at a sporting event – and I wasn’t even at the game! Are you thinking, “Well, no Americans were watching that stuff”? There were so many people at the bar when the US played England, they had to block off the street. If the US had made the Final, Broadway would have looked like Woodstock.
Located at 895 Broadway in Albany, the only way to tell Wolff’s used to be an upscale tapas restaurant is the long mahogany bar and the posh tiles in the men’s room. Other than that, it might be mistaken for a Ground Round that hadn’t gotten the message yet: Peanut shells all over the floor, picnic tables instead of regular tables, bare bulbs hanging in strings over the single-room space, and a fake tree in the back near the dart boards and the foosball table. Doesn’t sound like much? Wolff’s is the best sports bar in the Capital Region, period. One hour in there, and Buffalo Wild Wings seems as trite as it really is.
Do the math: Seven BIG flat-screen TVs. 14 draft beers – none of them Budweiser. 23 bottled beers, all of them serious. Sports on the flat-screens from opening to closing, and when the European football/rugby/whatever peters out, it’s all-American sports from that point on. Hit Wolff’s at happy hour and be prepared to jostle. Even if you know nothing about fuβbol, you’ll find yourself yelling at Wayne Rooney whether you know who he is or not. (FYI: He’s an odious, jug-eared troll who looks like Shrek.) When I was at Wolff’s during the Carling Cup final between Arsenal and Birmingham City a couple of Sundays ago, the room was filled with conversations until Arsenal striker Theo van Persie sent a wild shot towards Birmingham goalkeeper Ben Foster, and then everyone in the room found themselves screaming, “OHHHHHHHHHHHH!” You can’t help it. You just find yourself doing it.
There’s German music a couple of nights a week at Wolff’s, but the best tunes come from the iPod filled with old-time rock & roll (British and otherwise). The beer is amazing, but the food is even better, especially on the weekend, when they do brunch. Would you bring your kids to a bar? One group I saw included two phenomenally cute kids, the youngest only 18 months, each of them tucking into a glass of orange juice. I don’t know what they ordered, but my bet is on the Black Forest Pancakes, which includes cherry glaze, whipped cream, and chunks of chocolate cake. It is a work of art that will add to your hips and double your sugar count, but what a way to go.
Me? I had weisswurst, scrambled eggs with herbs, potato pancakes with whipped cream, apple sauce, and a glass of German pinot noir. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Lunch is pretty essential, too. So a few hours (and a few more glasses) later, I treated myself to the smoothest, creamiest, cheese-iest macaroni & cheese (with smoked West Phalian ham) I’ve ever had. If I’m ever sentenced to the electric chair, Wolff’s mac & cheese will be my last meal… unless it’d be easier to make Black Forest Pancakes. I could live with that – or die with it, whichever.
I finished my bowl just as Obafemi Martins – a Nigerian striker who started the season with Rubin Kazan in the Russian Super League – scored a last-minute goal to give Birmingham City the Carling Cup. Imagine the Bills beating the Steelers in a one-and-done mid-season tournament, and that’s how shocking the win was. The Arsenal fans around the bar (most of them wearing some kind of club gear) were gob-smacked, and most of them left before the trophy ceremony. Just another reason why fuβbol beats football and baseball hands down: It’s truly unpredictable.
In contrast, Wolff’s Biergarten is not unpredictable – it’s consistently ausgezeichnet. (That’s “outstanding,” for anyone who doesn’t remember the old Volkswagen commercial.)
Story and photographs by J Hunter.