First Person: Scenes from England’s World Cup Fever

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In England the World Cup is like the Olympics, the World Series, and the Super Bowl all rolled up into one red and white beer-stained bundle. For the past two weeks, I’ve had the unique pleasure of documenting the England World Cup experience firsthand, from the Spirit-of-’66 enthusiasm before the first match to the hopelessness of today. If England loses to Slovenia, it’ll be the first time they’ve been knocked out in the first round since 1958, a full eight years before they last won the World Cup.

Apparently World Cup merchandise accounts for a £168 million boost to the UK economy (possibly offset by the over half of English employees taking unauthorized time off to watch matches.) Walking around Plymouth city center, it’s almost harder to find a store without World Cup-dominated windows. SportsDirect.com, a cut-price sports apparel retail chain, has stocked up on every sort of England-related gear, including the ubiquitous car flags, T-shirts with the face of “Don Fabio” (Capello, England’s coach), and “If You Play for England, I’m Single” shirts for the ladies; the England chants on repeat make the shopping experience only slightly less painful than listening to vuvuzelas.

New Look, an average store of relatively cheap clothes for trendy teens, sells flip flops with cartoon England players for men, but red and white high-heeled shoes and bejeweled necklaces make up the majority of the women’s section. Even Marks & Spencer, the ever-classy department store better known for its fancy food hall and clothes for upper-class ladies than for its football-friendly attitude, dedicated a whole window to touting its status as an “official supplier” of all things England.

It wasn’t just private citizens adorning their cars with car flags, seat belt covers, and bunting in the England colors. This cab was spotted in the Plymouth city center; the Plymouth city buses also sported window decals with the flag and “Let’s Go England,” and some even were prominently branded with the name of a specific England player. The jokes that one could make about riding John Terry could go on for positively days.

Eating for England is also encouraged, with the cheap bake shops selling vaguely unappealing red and white cakes with little football rings and renaming items like sausage rolls as players’ favorites.

The chance to use the World Cup to sell food is one seized by many companies in England; Mars bars, for example, are showing their colors with a red and white wrapper, and Pringles have temporarily rebranded themselves as Pringoooals. By far the oddest tie-in, though, was created by Walkers, one of the largest snack food manufacturers in the country. English potato chips come in some notoriously odd flavors, like prawn cocktail, bacon, and roast chicken. So it makes sense – sort of – that Walkers would come up with fifteen new flavors for the World Cup themed after national cuisines in their “Flavour Cup.” The English Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding flavor seems almost normal next to American Cheeseburger, Scottish Haggis, Italian Spaghetti Bolognese, and, by far the worst offender, Australian BBQ Kangaroo, which Charlie Brooker described as “watery barbecue sauce with a dim hint of meat” – well, it could have been worse.

Thankfully, it’s not all chavs and cheap tat – in a view that could almost make an American burst into “God Save the Queen,” St. George’s Cross flies over Plymouth Sound on a sunny day.

I caught the England vs. US match in Bristol, a lovely city on the River Avon, just a few miles from Jane Austen’s Bath and down the river from Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, best known for Banksy and the invention of trip-hop. In Queen’s Square, near the river, the city of Bristol (in partnership with sponsors Hyundai) had erected a 24’x13’ big screen for the World Cup. The park held 11,000 fans; entry was free and wristbanded, and no outside alcohol was permitted in, but drinks were cheap, £3 or about $5. With an Englishman for cover, I showed up in a USA shirt, red, white, and blue Mardi Gras beads, and red, white, and blue pompoms in my hair; to my surprise, I was the only American (or at least, the only one dressed so obnoxiously) there.

At one point, we heard a commotion and managed to catch a quick glimpse of a man running through the field with a security guard chasing him; later, and again later, the same thing happened, but we couldn’t figure out why. Finally a mass of people ran past chased by security guards and policemen. As it turns out, they had reached capacity, so at first, a couple of England supporters had run in; eventually, a large group of them (men and women) had knocked down the perimeter fence to run in. Rebellious? Well, maybe for the English.

Aside from one adorable toddler attempting to kick around a full-size soccer ball, the dress code was primarily trashy; despite the fact that we were in a grass field, there were women who paired their England shirts with four-inch stilettos and leggings-as-pants, and unattractive men exhibiting the classic English affinity for taking off their shirts any time the sun is out.

Not everything could be as adorable as the toddler.

The match started promptly at 7:30; the England supporters proudly sang along to “God Save The Queen” and then made a general ruckus during the American anthem. I had a little American flag and jumped about waving it whenever the American players were on the screen, and booed Wayne Rooney with all my might, but somehow my behavior only translated to adorableness to the fans around me; they all turned around and sort of smiled. The cocky bastards.

Four minutes into the match England struck first, with a solid goal by (third-this-year) England captain Steven Gerrard. One supporter near me turned to me and mouthed “I’m sorry” which was really quite polite, but I was despondent.

Then, finally, vindication. At forty minutes in, five minutes before halftime, Clint Dempsey took a shot that should have been cleared away easily. But it wasn’t. England goalkeeper Robert Green shamefully fumbled the ball into his own net. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The field was silent as the England supporters tried to process what just happened. Except, of course, for me. My hootin’ and hollerin’ and singing of “God Bless America” was a lot less cute this time.

The last few minutes of the match were absolute torture, and then, finally – the whistle blew. Somehow, we had managed to hold England at bay and leave this historic meeting with our heads held high. I was thrilled. The England supporters looked devastated, with one particularly angry young man flipping me off from afar. Misery has never looked so beautiful.

The six days after the England-US match were ones filled with cautious hope from the English. Sure, they hadn’t won, but they hadn’t lost either, and their next match was against Algeria, one of the lowest ranked teams in the tournament.

I watched the England vs. Algeria match in a tiny pub filled with welcoming locals on the outskirts of Penzance (yes, that Penzance), in Cornwall. The bar was decorated with English flags as well as Cornish flags; Cornwall has always had a slightly uneasy relationship with England, with its own self-rule movement and language that hews closer to Welsh. In true English form, the locals had pretty much given up on the England team by halftime; one woman turned her England shirt backwards and moaned that she hoped Algeria would score and put England out of their misery.

Unfortunately for everyone who watched the match, no one scored, and the English misery looks far from over.

And so, we come to today, where both England and the US face do-or-die matches this morning, their fates to be determined by two teams who were never meant to be much of a challenge. I can’t speak to the mood back at home – maybe, hopefully, there’ll be a sudden rash of New Yorkers turning up to work a few hours late and a bit drunk to forgiving bosses – but at 3pm here, England will shut down, the pubs will be overflowing, and the chants of “Eng-er-land” will ring from London to Newcastle (and your faithful correspondent will go in search of the one pub TV in all of Plymouth showing the USA match). And, if all goes according to plan for the hangdog English, England will disappoint yet again.