World Cup at the UN Mixes Tax-Free Beer With Diplomacy

Watching World Cup matches while drinking tax-free imported beer is an important part of diplomacy at the United Nations.

The roars and groans of the thousands of diplomats who represent the UN’s 193 member states and support their national teams are loud enough to be heard across the world body’s New York headquarters. Right now, at least, international competition is taking center stage over cooperation on unrest in Iraq, the Syrian civil war and conflicts in Africa.

That’s why the ambassadors from the Netherlands, Djibouti and World Cup host Brazil created an “open-ended watching group” in the North Delegates’ Lounge -- the bar and cafe in the UN Secretariat building -- where diplomats, UN officials and journalists can watch football 24 hours a day.

“If you look on average, diplomats work 12-to-14 hours a day, so if you take a two-hour break, it’s OK,” said Karel van Oostrom, the Dutch ambassador to the UN. “It’s a collective effort where we think that supporting a national team is work.”

Junior diplomats agree. Since the inaugural match between Brazil and Mexico on June 12, at least 50 people can be found at all times sitting in front of two free-standing televisions.

Bar manager Rudy Lasher said business has been good since he introduced $4 imported beers and $5 house wine specials. Drinks sold at the UN are cheaper than those bought outside its 18-acre campus in midtown Manhattan. As international territory, the Delegates’ Lounge is exempt from sales tax, which is 8.875 percent for food and beverages, according to New York City’s Department of Finance website.

Connecting Members

During halftimes, fans study the World Cup rosters next to the televisions, trying to plan future lineups.

The lounge, which re-opened in September after a three-year renovation and redesign by the Dutch government, “needed something to connect all of the membership with something as wonderful as the world championships of soccer,” Van Oostrom said.

Van Oostrom unveiled the 24-hour viewing center on June 9 with Roble Olhaye, Djibouti’s envoy to the UN and the dean of the diplomatic corps, and Brazilian ambassador Antonio Patriota. It features a wall of jerseys from the 32 countries that qualified for the Cup’s first round.

For bonus fun, U.K. Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant joined the envoys of all the other countries that competed in the first round to organize an informal pool for diplomats to predict qualifying nations for all subsequent rounds and the final game’s score and victor, said Iona Thomas, the ambassador’s spokeswoman.

Neutral Jersey

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended the viewing center’s opening wearing a white, custom-made UN jersey featuring the international body’s emblem in the official sky-blue color. The former South Korean diplomat said that to help him remain neutral during the month-long Cup competition, he wouldn’t watch his team’s first match against Russia.

“To keep my neutrality, I decided not to watch the game, and I will get the report from my staff early tomorrow morning,” Ban told reporters on June 17 in Geneva. “I may not hide my own sentiment and support for the Korean team, but as Secretary-General it would be very important that I need to be impartial.”

“I’m supporting all the teams who are participating in the World Cup!” he added diplomatically.

Any internal conflict for Ban was resolved yesterday when Belgium eliminated South Korea, 1-0.

France’s Win

Most envoys tend to be more aggressive when it comes to rooting for their own teams, though so far, no one’s been bitten in the Delegates’ Lounge.

As France scored three goals against Switzerland in the first half of their June 20 match, France’s Ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud said in a tweet: “I ask my young diplomats at the Delegates’ Lounge to not forget their business: Reach out to our neighbors in sorrow. Be gracious!”

The French won 5-2.

Also on Twitter, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power engaged German counterpart Harald Braun in a wager, offering to deliver a case of Brooklyn Brewery Corp. beer to him if team U.S.A. didn’t win its match yesterday against his country’s squad.

The German mission replied: “As long as the beer is chilled & from #GER, we are in.”

After a 1-0 victory by their team, the Germans can look forward to getting that Brooklyn beer, even if its origins don’t meet their specifications. A spokesman for Power said she’ll make good on her bet today.

‘No Better Place’

Stephane Dujarric, a UN spokesman, points to such friendly banter as proof that “there’s no better place to watch the World Cup than at the UN.”

“You get all the rivalry and passion, but it all remains diplomatic,” Dujarric said on June 23 in his office as a computer screen streamed the Brazil versus Cameroon and Croatia versus Mexico games.

Starting today, the competitive zeal will grow more heated for the 16 countries that made the second round. The Delegates’ Lounge will customize drink specials based on the countries playing in the matches, bar manager Lasher said.

Van Oostrom of Netherlands, whose team has been on a roll, suggests serving fresh milk from Dutch cows or Heineken beer during his team’s games. France’s Araud suggests “champagne for everybody” when Les Bleus compete.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.