Ecstasy and Agony

Boria Majumdar is a sports journalist and author
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The author visits pubs at Oxford to catch the euphoria and the heartbreak of the English football-crazy fan.

The moment we were given Rustenburg as our base I knew it would be a scarred World Cup. You can’t escape the Kruger curse.

England’s poor performance in the World Cup has thrown up extreme reactions. From blaming Paul Kruger’s resistance against the British during the Boer War at Rustenburg, which is considered a British Waterloo, to coach Fabio Capello not allowing the players to have sex, it is a country seething to erupt if England falls prey to the burden of expectations. 

It was just about 10 pm in Oxford and the vibrant university town had suddenly lost all its verve. England team had drawn against Algeria and all of a sudden there were question marks all over. With Capello at a loss for words, the counters at the King’s Arms pub, overflowing till moments earlier, were empty. None present were asking for a refill and even the bartenders appeared stunned. It was going to be a really long night but not one to remember or celebrate. The unexpected drizzle outside summed up the mood- a chilly English evening with an eerie silence hanging like a cloud over the city of spires. 

The mood was summed by two young teenagers in Chelsea shirts, “Steven Gerrard can’t even speak! Let alone inspire the team. He makes Beckham look like an orator. John Terry ia a true leader. When will the manager understand it!”. Others were equally frustrated with Capello, “You don’t need to be paid 3 million GBP to realise that Joe Cole is a must with Wayne Rooney upfront. He is simply siphoning 3 million pounds of our money at times of recession.” The comment of the day, however, came from the lady serving the beer, “Let Capello not have sex for more than two weeks and do what is asked of him. He will turn into a zombie!”

As I walked back to my residence at St John’s College, it was evident that the white and red St George’s cross in all cars speeding the city had stopped fluttering and the grandiose plans to play football post-match at the Oxford University club lawns had come to nought. Post mortems had started and children who had come all dressed up with their parents in anticipation of a perfect family evening had turned cranky and despondent. The Cup dream, while not over, was fast losing sheen and all of England was desperately in search of answers to the singular question that confronted them—were the English choking under pressure? “Will it really matter to Capello if we lose in South Africa? He will still get his millions. won’t he?” shouted an inebriated teenager as he kicked his ball hard into the windscreen of a parked car. Having followed the build-up to the game in Oxford pubs and seen the enthusiasm across age and gender, I was reminded of scenes in the streets of St Lucia a month earlier as Mahendra Dhoni and his men were jostled out of the T20 World Cup by the Sri Lankans.

The day had started differently. Every city pub had been done up in red and white and gargantuan flags bearing the St George’s cross adorned entrances to most of them. Red and white balloons with England written over them were being given away to fans making their way to the pubs and strategically positioned seats in front of the giant LCD television sets had been booked hours earlier. Not a single pub was empty with fans taking them over with hours to go before the game. In fact, according to a statistic published in a local Oxford paper, to watch the match preview, which started at 6 p.m. local time, 45 per cent of the working Oxford population had left office at no later than 2 p.m. Bosses who refused to let off their employees were under threat of physical assault. More than 15 per cent of the city’s office workers had applied for leave six months in advance, as soon as the Cup draw and match timings were made public. Ready with their adaptation of the vuvuzelas, some of these fans spent hours getting their faces painted in red and white.

Even Oxford dons were seen carrying cardboard boxes full of champagne bottles to their senior common rooms in preparation for the game. “We’d need a full supply to last us till midnight! England will pump in a handful and then we don’t want to run out of champagne so all preparations must be in order”, suggested David Whitaker, the head porter at St John’s. 

As the referee called play, shouts of “Go England” reverberated across the pub where I had stationed myself to do my ethnography. Algeria, it was unanimously decreed, was no match for Gerrard and Co and it was only a matter of time before Rooney scored his first of the tournament. At the Que Pasa, a beautiful pub just next to the Gloucester Green Bus Station, an overflow of fans started playing their vuvuzelas, creating decibel levels far beyond the comfort zone. All of Oxford had also turned a fancy dress party. Long and innovative head gear in red and white looked the norm and women made the most of the bright summer day in dresses sufficiently long or short enough to attract the male gaze. But with the weather changing, along with the English performance, many of them had to scamper home! Oxford, in the middle of graduation ceremonies and annual examinations, had suddenly turned football city.

As the match moved to half time, however, the mood swing from buoyant to apprehensive was dramatic. With the USA having drawn 2-2 against Slovenia, it was known to all that a draw against Algeria leaves the English precariously poised going into their last game of the group. At the time of going to press, with a day to go for England’s last group game, the entire British Isles is on the edge. One more slip and Capello will soon be the most hated man in the country. Some of the local papers have already run headlines like, “British boss has one more day to live”, and “Capello’s last night”. 

Scenes in Scotland, however, are profoundly different. While the United Kingdom's football madness compares with India's cricket mania, it also divides the British Isles fair and square. Watching England play at an Edinburgh pub, the anti-British sentiment was terrifying. With only a minority watching the game in England World Cup shirts, the potential of violence was more than real.

Though there wasn't any violence in the Dalry Road pub where I was watching, there were instances all over Edinburgh. In fact, as the Scottish Daily Mirror reported the day after the England-US match, a four-year-old child was assaulted by Scottish racists for supporting England. His father wasn't spared either, resulting in a strong condemnation of the incident by politicians. That the Dalry Road pub had witnessed violence earlier was evident from a blackboard sign which read, "School children not allowed for unruly behaviour the other night".

When I inquired into what had happened I was told that fanatics had urinated in public as soon as Steven Gerrard had scored. And almost anyone who did not share their hatred against England was targeted and abused, physically and verbally.

What explains this divisiveness? The fact that English imperialism was local before it was global. England's first imperial territories were Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This local empire produced ripples in sport and elsewhere. For all the rivalry between Celtic nations, England for them is the nation to defeat.

In an opinion poll conducted by The Times, London in 2006, Bob Rogers puts the anti-British sentiment in perspective: "The whole thing is best illustrated by the changes over the past 40 years. In pictures of the 1966 final at Wembley the stands were awash with Union flags. In 2006, there are none, only the St George's Cross is flown. There has been a huge identity shift in the interim. This, I believe, is a good thing. The English are rightly proud of their country and want to show this. They don't feel part of a 'United Kingdom' any more than the Welsh or the Scots do. Face it; there is no United Kingdom outside the realms of jurassic politicians and credulous monarchists."

While there might be no United Kingdom, there certainly is an England that loves its football beyond comprehension. This passion was best summed up by the preparations undertaken by the owners of the White Horse, one of Oxford’s best known pubs. “The World Cup is sacred. It is the best festival we can dream of. The business is unbelievable and all we need is a good English performance to make sure we have enough to undertake a month-long European holiday. We have special dishes and innovative desserts named after our opponents. Each England goal will be accompanied by madness and we must be ready at all times to satisfy the thirst of our customers. There’s nothing like the Cup. It’s a pity it comes every four years.”

The way England has played so far, it is certainly a pity that the next World Cup is four years away for the wait might be really too long to endure for the football-crazy nation. The Scots, however, will continue to celebrate in the interim. God Save the Queen!