It all started with an Ecuadorian fish stew on the damp Holloway Road. Perhaps every World Cup should. My stew had depth and colour and blew away the dark night. On the pitch, hosts Qatar were overwhelmed by an energetic Ecuador and the enormity of the occasion. I looked down at my encebollado and wondered whether my partner and I would be able to stomach eating the World Cup.
Eat the World Cup was our mission to watch the 2022 World Cup in London restaurants and bars that represented all of the 32 participating countries. We spent weeks researching, securing reservations and devising alternatives for problem countries. I joined online communities, regularly called a Korean restaurant in New Malden to persuade them to show football and even spent my birthday searching for suitable spots in central London. I fully embraced this World Cup challenge. My football shirt collection was raided for appropriate attire and I bought giant flags, an inflatable kangaroo and a surprisingly weighty trophy from eBay.
We dined on delicious rabbit terrine, cinnamon chapati and empanadas. We drank smooth Côtes du Rhône, strong Orval beer and margaritas. My friend remarked that every time he looked at his phone a photograph popped up with me smiling in a pub alongside masses of food. The reality was harder. We needed to cover almost all countries in the group phase or risk our challenge being derailed by shock early exits. We visited 27 hostelries in the first nine days of the tournament, testing energy levels as well as our organisation. Train strikes left us more reliant on buses. Big coats and that replica trophy were lugged around on 62 public transport journeys. And matches lasted far longer than expected. We sacrificed some of England’s extended opener against Iran to make our Senegal match. We missed a few late goals, but arrived for the start of every game.
We had to make a few country compromises. No Senegalese restaurants were trading in London. But jollof rice with slightly overcooked chicken originated in the Senegambia region and is a staple in many other West African states, including Sierra Leone. The Uruguayan embassy helpfully responded to my email enquiry in less than a day, but confirmed there were no native eateries in London, so we ate similar dishes in a Brazilian cantina. I discovered a Libyan restaurant with a Tunisian chef, a Balkan eatery in Fulham frequented by Aleksandar Mitrović to compensate for Croatia and a dreary Vauxhall hangout packed with Australians, the only place with neither national food or drink on sale.
We had our 32 hosts. But watching the game wasn’t always straightforward. “Oh shit” said a nearby security guard when a message indicating the big screen was about to go on standby mode appeared in front of hundreds of boozy Australians. Television coverage sometimes lagged the action on other screens by over a minute. And there were boos in El Rincon Quintero when a temperamental Ecuadorian broadcast switched to cricket. We also watched matches with animated Arabic, French, Polish, Portuguese and Serbian commentary, all helpfully minimising our exposure to Jermaine Jenas. On occasions televisions didn’t fit with the ambience at all, and we streamed matches in a moribund Qatari cafe and friendly Iranian restaurant.
Europe United was a travel democracy that pushed me to every footballing land on the continent. This restaurant equivalent took in several unexplored corners of London’s culinary scene: the Edgware Road, Stockwell and West African South East London. The Edgware Road is a busy artery that connects Marble Arch with north-west London, far from my normal social radar. We watched Saudi Arabia defeat Argentina in Hijazi Corner, a newly-opened eatery offering Yemeni-influenced food popular in Saudi Arabia. We consumed spicy karak chai, freshly sauteed liver and dense ma’sob, minced roti with bananas. I placed a £1 bet on every host team to win their match and my £22 profit here paid for the most exotic of breakfasts.
Five days later, we were further up the Edgware Road at Dar Marrakesh for Morocco’s match against Belgium. The atmosphere was banging long before kick-off, with tables of Moroccan women screaming in delight and stamping their feet. After consuming numerous plates of pork and beef, I enjoyed the respite of flatbreads, meze and halloumi washed down with mint tea. The restaurant was packed and locked its front door to prevent a fan invasion. One man peered at the television through a steamy window before the chef ventured up from the kitchen to watch the final few minutes of a famous win. My trophy was escorted on a tour of this Marrakesh with various celebrating Moroccans. Cars tooted their horns on the Edgware Road, something repeated with even more fervour as the Atlas Lions became the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-finals.
Urbane Stockwell, just south of the river, is famous for its Portuguese-speaking inhabitants and hosted our Uruguay, Portugal and Brazil matches. Our Uruguayan substitute was Cantinho do Goias, a friendly Brazilian cantina where London’s small Uruguayan population often gathers for games. Not for this lunchtime fixture. I enjoyed the amiable service though, and lightly-cooked picanha more than dry feijão tropeiro. It was strange to observe South America transplanted into the grey European winter. A poster proclaimed that Cantinho do Goias served the best juice in London whilst two women chatted for hours in Portuguese over glasses of wine. An old woman in a red knitted hat entered, glanced at the television and said “Football. Sick of it. Everywhere I go the football is on”, reminding us that we were in South London, not São Paulo. Still, she cracked open a bottle of Budweiser to get in the World Cup mood.
The sprawling Estrela tapas bar, half a mile away, hosted Portugal’s match against Uruguay a few days later. Estrela, like a number of places, had shortened its normal menu for the football, but the quality of cooking remained high, especially the fabulous octopus salad. Estrela enforced a minimum spend of £30 a head, an amount we exceeded only four times. Indeed, our average outgoing was an economical £17 per person. Nearby Avenida Brasil hosted our final match and only second round clash. I was mistaken for a Brazilian in a strangely luminous basement bar with rainforest touches that brought the Amazon to Stockwell. I had also been addressed in Polish and Arabic whilst my partner was, perhaps understandably, mistaken for Costa Rican. There was no sane reason why anyone would be in a Chancery Lane pub at 10am on a Sunday morning other than to cheer on the Ticos with fellow Brit-based Costa Ricans.
Africa is close to my heart. I spent six weeks travelling southern Africa earlier in 2022, but strong West African vibes are more noticeable around South East London. The cheery clientele in Ibb’s Restaurant, my Senegalese stand-in, informed me they were supporting all the African teams. A retro photograph of Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, provided a window to their homeland, as did a punchy chilli sauce to accompany our large plates of jollof rice. Few would venture into Ibb’s without a football mission, but the feel was friendly and, when baskets of washing appeared during the second half, slightly surreal. I asked where the Senegalese were in London. “They’re all up the Walworth Road in McDonald’s” responded the owner.
We made a rare excursion outside Zone 2 to visit Norwood Junction for Ghana’s opening match. The security guards outside Gold Coast Bar and Restaurant took selfies with my increasingly famous World Cup trophy whilst, just inside the door, an enterprising hustler was selling replica Ghana shirts for the precise sum of £39.99. I sat next to Graham, an Arsenal fan whose first ever live match was at Craven Cottage in the 1970s. I always love finding random Fulham links. A crowd high on Star and Club beers celebrated Ghana’s equaliser with boundless joy. “Noone leaves, noone leaves” said the doorman to us. But we had to abandon Gold Coast to head to a Serbian pub in Battersea.
Deptford hosted our final West African match. Maestro Bar’s battered yellow frontage promised little, but the food, drink and atmosphere inside were authentically Cameroonian. The uniquely bitter taste of ndolé, the national dish of stewed nuts and leaves with unidentifiable meat, was enjoyed alongside bottles of 33 Export. The rowdy Friday night crowd were almost exclusively Cameroonian. A man in a massive coat and a tropical hat consumed a mighty croaker fish. Women squeezed into tight national shirts. There were loud cheers when Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon’s old maestro, appeared on television. And fans leapt from the small stage at the front when Vincent Aboubakar, Cameroon’s current forward, scored a famous winner against Brazil. One picked up my much-loved World Cup replica, kissed the trophy and videoed himself. “This one is on the way to Yaoundé” he said. Of course, it wasn’t. Cameroon hadn’t even made it out of the group. But noone cared. This was their moment. An Afrobeat band kicked off their set and the Maestro owner joined on lead vocals. I ordered another 33 Export and the celebrations went long into the night.
The following week a friend messaged me asking for a top recommendation from my challenge. “Don’t try it with a 48-team tournament” I replied.