There are 2 groups of people I’ve saved until last to write about, very different in nature but both amazing in their own right. The first are the English football fans. It doesn’t matter what game you go to at a World Cup, you will ALWAYS find England fans and English flags there.
If you go to an England game itself, the flags are the thing you really notice, akin to a male peacock’s proud plumage. Ahead of the Rustenburg game, the press was predicting more than 60% of the fans were likely to be from USA i.e. we would be heavily outnumbered. There were quite a few USA fans there but they were seemingly swamped by the numbers of English. This was partly an optical illusion and the reason was the flags. The English always have so many St George flags adorning a stadium (wherever it is) it’s an amazing sight to behold. Most of the club affiliations are the real bread and butter of the game, not the Man Utd and Chelsea glory hunters. Rather you see fans from Notts County, Wimbledon, Macclesfield, Stevenage Borough and all four corners of England’s Green and Pleasant Land. When you go to multiple England games in the same tournament you start to see the same flags and fancy dress costumes repeated and get a sense of the travelling circus you become a temporary member of.
The vuvezelas have been an interesting innovation at this World Cup. In general I don’t mind them, they’re quite fun, except at the Japan vs Paraguay game when the football was so poor that all people had to do was to blow them non-stop for 120 mins. It was noticeable though that the vuvezelas were much less prominent at England games. This was partly because the English fans, sans vuvus, had hoovered up so many of the spare tickets that neutrals would otherwise use but mainly because England football fans like to SING. There are a variety of songs in the repertoire; some funny, some mildly offensive, some centred on the historical period of 1939-1945 and nearly always jingoistic in nature. There was a new song especially for this World Cup whose lyrics consisted entirely of “you can stick your vuvezelas up your a..e” (clue = 4 letter word, beginning with the letter A and rhyming with grass). The locals seemed to get the message and after a couple of renditions of this gay ditty there was a sufficient decibel reduction to hear the travelling England Supporters’ brass band. They generally orchestrate the rhythm and dynamics of the songs although, there is rather more Fortissimo than Pianissimo.
The next 2 opponents; Algeria and Slovenia you would expect to have few fans anyway, although the Algerians at Cape Town made more noise than the USA fans had at Rustenburg and were an impressive and very good natured bunch. The big one though was the game at Bloemfontein vs the Germans. Not only would this be a big football game but there was honour at stake here for the fans; who could drink the most beer, who could sing the most and the loudest songs, who could have the visible most flags etc.
Turning ever so briefly to the football. England were outplayed, outfought and outthought. Simple as. Lampard’s goal was obviously a goal but Germany could have scored another 4 if they’d needed to. You just have to admit sometimes that the other team was better and Germany were miles better on the day. In purely technical terms, we were crap and they were good.
As to the important matters though I can proudly reveal that England ‘played a blinder’:
- There were way more England flags there than German ones (this may seem trivial but don’t forget that most England fans had assumed that we would win our group and therefore had accommodation and match tickets lined up for the Rustenburg 2nd round game the day before, a mere 8 hours drive further North)
- The England songs were much more vocal and varied, at least until the 3rd or 4th German goal went in when life seemed to lose all meaning and we collectively started to consider the merits of Existentialism
- Best of all though, the England fans drank the stadium dry. I was in a queue for beer at half time that seemed to last an eternity. The reason was that mass panic had set in as scurrilous rumours emanated that other parts of the stadium had already run dry and this was possibly the only queue left with beer at the end of it. I actually missed the first 10 mins of the 2nd half, inc Lampard’s free kick that rattled the bar, but did have the satisfaction of receiving some of the last beer available in the stadium.
Actually this seemed like déjà vu as our journey down to Bloemfontein had already been significantly extended in the morning by a search and rescue mission for ‘essential supplies’. We had set off about 8am for a 6 hour drive but were deterred by press reports that had suggested Free State (the conservative & heavily religious province of Bloemfontein) was usually dry on Sundays and all bars / bottle shops would probably be closed. We were terrified that we would arrive in Bloemfontein with no beer and see the Afrika Korps er I mean the German fans there in force with Steins of ice cold lager and perfectly griddled bratwursts. Suffice to say, we eventually found a bottle shop, open on a Sunday morning, and rewarded them with more business than they’d normally do in a week.
The drive down in the morning was actually great fun. A flotilla of seemingly random vehicles coalescing the closer we got to Bloemfontein. There are quite a few toll plazas on this stretch of the N1 and as the cars slowed to filter through there was already some good natured banter & horn honking going on. Wanting to ‘get into the mood’ we searched the collective memory of our respective iPods but the only vaguely jingoistic tune we could come up was a 30 secs clip of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. Winding down all the windows we cranked this up to maximum volume and placed it on continuous loop as we inched along in the queue. There were a few puzzled looks on the German fans’ faces whereas most of the England fans seemed to think we were a production crew for ‘Last Night of the Proms’ and were craning their necks to see if Richard Baker or Clive Anderson were hidden in the back of our car.
There are other countries that have excellent followings; Brazil, Argentina, Holland and Germany all have great fans but the difference is that their team also delivers. The problem for the English fans is they put in so much time and effort but the team rarely reciprocates. I have been ‘lucky’ enough to see England play 13 times at the World Cup finals since 1998. Of those 13 games there are a grand total of 2 that I remember us playing really well in
- 1998 vs Argentina in a game we still lost. The Michael Owen game.
- 2002 vs Denmark when we were up 3-0 before half time and the congas had started after only 30 mins. To add to the surreal feeling of that evening in Niigata I think Emile Heskey may even have scored. Halley’s Comet may also have made an appearance.
Still hope springs eternal and everything goes in cycles. The gloom and despair of this historic loss will be probably be superceded by another loss vs Australia in the Ashes this winter. Night will turn to day, we’ll gradually forget ‘the shame of Bloemfontein’ and instead spend The Winter of our Discontent harping on about Uruguayan linesmen while nourished by a steady supply of ‘If Only’ ruminations.
They are an amazing species, the England football fan. Occasionally bad tempered, always humourous, incredibly flexible (you have to be to follow England) but above all fiercely loyal. Does the Rest of the World care though that England exited the competition so early?
From a football standpoint the answer has to be a resounding no, a deafening wave of apathy from the other nations. We got exactly what we deserved on the field.
Off the field though the shopkeepers, merchants, hoteliers, bar owners (especially) and general population were genuinely saddened. Only 20 short years ago English football fans were pariahs and towns would shut up entirely if England were drawn to play there (this happened as recently as France ’98). In South Africa though, hosting an England game was seen as a jackpot. In a survey of the highest spending fans conducted by Visa between June 1st – 20th the amount spent by fans using Visa branded payment cards was as follows:
- USA US$ 34.5m
- England US$ 33.8m
- Australia US$ 8.8m
- Brazil US$ 6.5m
Of course this is not a totally scientific measure but it gives an indication why England fans are once again a prized attraction with the local populace.Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized