I realised this afternoon that I would never be able to live down the idea of not having watched a football match featuring England at an English pub. Here we go then.
I have never actively sought out football matches on television, except perhaps during major tournaments. Breakfast at work meant that I was always brought up to date on the EPL without actually having to watch it or read the papers; my Twitter timeline ensures that, if I show the slightest spark of interest, I’ll know everything there is to about transfers, coaches and teams in the various leagues around the world. But of course, it doesn’t come anywhere near the kind of passion and sheer vitriol you’d be exposed to in an English setting, as I’ve learnt through a conversation today.
I was at an English pub with classmates to watch the England vs Ukraine match; the English were hoping to top the table so they would have to face Italy in the QF instead of Spain. Most of the spectators at the pub were rooting for England, of course, as did the Irishman in the group, surprisingly. On close questioning, I learnt that it was part of a diabolical plan that involved watching the English set their sights on the trophy, get their hopes really high, then watch in delight as they imploded spectacularly. (So it isn’t just us Ferrari fans who are tired of English commentators.)
I was flattered to be asked for my opinion on the first half, and this is what I thought: that the English weren’t aggressive enough, almost playing the way they’d turn up for a dead rubber (substitute football equivalent), half-hearted and listless. They showed no hunger, certainly none befitting a team talking of challenging for the championship. The Ukrainians seemed more cognizant of what they were doing, and I’d quite set my hopes on an upset, but they only flattered to deceive. The game seemed rather scrappy, devoid of the exquisite touches and nuances that make certain teams stand out from the rest. That said, I still enjoyed the match, surrounded that I was by English fans, watching the various phases of exultation and agony they went through. They rose in unison when Wayne Rooney scored the only goal of the match, palpably relieved despite the sporadic bouts of tension that the Ukrainian team seemed hell-bent upon inflicting on them.
This experience was quite different from the Irish one in that the atmosphere here was belligerent and confident. England knew it was in for a win, and the pain of a terrible pass or a missed attempt was very keenly felt- the Irish, on the other hand, had let such disappointments pass with a wince and a shrug, going back nonchalantly to their pints. (Of course, I can’t comment on how they would have celebrated had they scored- we’ll save that for another day, perhaps when we’re talking of rugby.) The English fans weren’t helped by their footballers, who made things quite difficult for themselves, eking out a hobbling win: sorry, novice as I am, I had higher expectations from a team that has given us, among other things, the concept of WAGs.
Sport is defined by armchair criticism. What good would it be watching sport if we couldn’t holler instructions at a screen and berate a driver’s stupidity when he cuts across a chicane, losing more places than he could have gained? A world without pitched battles among various loyalists would be horribly hollow- and where we would be without the English contingent, I cannot imagine. The world would be a poorer place without the Barmy Army or English commentators willing their teams/individuals on to victory even when they didn’t stand a scrap of a chance.
Most of us need taking down a peg or two after winning a major tournament; England and India seem to vie for top honours when it comes to the sportspersons and the management, but we’ll gladly concede defeat to their commentators. India’s reckoning after the cricket World Cup win ironically came at the hands of the English, but no matter, I’ll gladly support England when the Ashes come around. Such are the fickle loyalties that sport arouses, but can you ever imagine watching a series or even a match without rooting for someone?
As someone who can watch just about any sport on television, I can think of no better place to live in that England. If I were to stay on here a little longer, I’m quite sure I’d be sucked into the pleasantly exciting vortex of the EPL. I see myself writing coherently about football some day: it is an absolute disgrace to live in England and not know enough about the sport, but of course I have cricket to fall back on. The Hove cricket ground is not too far from where I live, and I have some elegant, old-fashioned county cricket in my crosshairs. Yes, this time I’m going to a ground with seating areas for spectators, as an English friend would put it.
PS. A quick word on the pub- it is called the Hope, and they make a very delicious vegetarian pizza here. I have been wanting to visit it for a while now because of the lines painted on its front- Nikos Kazantzakis’ epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” (This is a cue to those of you who haven’t read Zorba the Greek yet to do so immediately.) I was also introduced to a West Midlands snack called ‘pork scratchings’, which I didn’t sample of course- but that isn’t a particularly enticing name, is it?