COLE: Not your Fatherland’s football game

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Near the end of the second half, in the waning minutes of a tie game, a curious voice pipes up over the drone of chatter and forks colliding with knives collecting straggling bits of gravy.

“So what happens now?”

Three voices reflexively answer, albeit slight variants of each other.

“Overtime. Two, 15-minute halves. PK’s after that if no one scores.”

The World Cup Game crowd at Helga's in Aurora during the final match
The World Cup Game crowd at Helga’s in Aurora during the final match

If conventional wisdom dictates that Americans have a limited appetite for soccer, someone forgot to tell everyone at Helga’s German restaurant in Aurora. Granted during a World Cup final, in the middle of a German restaurant, you’re likely to find a few scholars of the sport — probably akin to asking Home Depot shoppers how far apart wall studs should be spaced. But appetites are why most people are here anyway. Potatoes cover the bar. Gravy covers the potatoes and everything else, maybe except for the beer. If watching the World Cup requires nearly three hours of concentration, that easily spans one meal. Helga’s can serve you the caloric equivalent of three, on the same plate.

I don’t get the feeling that Milton Hunholz counts calories in the same way I do. Which is not to say the Aurora man (who is a dead-ringer for actor Bill Murray’s quasi-famous brother Brian) is a big man. The rancher, who lives in Aurora and raises cattle in Watkins on his family farm, says he eats Helga’s food 3-4 times a week and I get the feeling he doesn’t count leftovers.

Hunholz is friends of the family: Helga, her brother and their mother, who died a few years ago. He can remember going to Helga’s many years ago, when it was a Hoffman Heights restaurant that collected native German-speaking Aurorans in the tiny dining room with 12 tables. Back then, Helga’s was a place that German immigrants in Aurora could gather over bowls of goulash. Now, nearly 100 people crowd the restaurant near the Town Center at Aurora transfixed to the television broadcasting Germany vs. Argentina in the world’s most-watched sporting event. Swarm or not, Hunholz says the family atmosphere is the same now as it ever was, evidenced by the regulars that cycle in and come to shake his hand on the way to their seats.

“Doesn’t take long when everyone comes in, has good beer and good food. You get to know everybody,” he says.

For that reason, Hunholz is the best navigator for my three hours of fandom for Die Mannschaft, German beer, German food and the transmogrification of a potato into 12 different foodstuffs.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally a fan of Italian soccer. Long ago when I covered sports, I divorced myself for personally rooting for any team because I thought it mattered. Now, as I get older, I understand that my news judgment is neither clouded nor consequential if I “root” for a team in a bar for three hours in a game that has less consequence than a U.N. resolution. The short of the long: No one cares.)

Pointing to the empty hooks above the bar, Hunholz shows me where regulars hang their steins. Considering very few of them are up I’m guessing that it’s mostly a familiar crowd today.

“I know some of these people, not a lot though,” he says.

I stand corrected.

“There’s just a lot of people here,” he replies.

Oh, gotcha.

There’s no referendum on whether soccer can survive in America at Helga’s. Tim Andre, the manager, is equal parts host and cheerleader in a German soccer jersey. Donald Ellis, who lives in Aurora, waxes on whether Germany benefits from taking the game to penalty kicks — the most-fair and least-fair way of deciding a game in all of sports right now. Soccer is alive, it’s way beyond surviving.

Hunholz is more than a casual fan of the game, he knows the intricacies even if he doesn’t know some of the players’ names. When German striker Miroslav Klose, the most prolific goal scorer in World Cup history, exited the game for likely the final time in his career, Hunholz’s big, weathered hands clapped the loudest.

When Manuel Neuer, Germany’s outstanding goalkeeper, sent another goal kick into sub-orbit, Hunholz paid attention: “Maybe the Broncos could sign that guy.”

But as my guide, Hunholz navigated the game, his history and his lifelong connection to Helga’s for 117 minutes, paying close attention to details like what beer I should drink, throughout.

Then, as Germany scored the winning goal, in the 11th hour of the final game, Hunholz stopped being my lone guide and started hosting the group of people who had come to shake his hand earlier.

“So, what now?” I ask.

“We get another round. Want one?”

Next time.