An eerie silence descends over the entire country when England plays a major football match. And in the World Cup, every game is critical for a team battling to go forward to the second round. The big advantage of the national preoccupation with the sport is that the roads are virtually traffic-free. Pubs are packed with excited fans as giant TV screens bring the latest action from South Africa, and the sale of beer has soared.
Not that England fans have much to cheer about thus far after drawing with both the United States and Algeria, their lacklustre team is struggling to avoid elimination. Its crucial match with Slovenia on Wednesday will undoubtedly bring the whole country to a grinding halt. Should it fail to secure the desperately needed three points from the encounter, there will be howls of outrage.
Ex-captain John Terry`s aborted coup against the team`s Italian manager had echoes of the Pakistan cricket team`s trials and tribulations over the last few years. But England fans and pundits alike drew some comfort from the antics of the French team. The open rebellion has caused fury back in France where President Sarkozy called a crisis cabinet meeting.
Over the years, England supporters have acquired an inflated opinion of their team`s prowess. It is true that England`s Premier League is probably the best national competition, attracting some of the finest players in the world. They are paid large sums, and play at a generally high level. In this setting, some English players occasionally shine, but they are supported by many top footballers from other countries. When their international colleagues return to play for their own national teams, the English side suddenly finds that its flair and attacking skills have evaporated.
In a World Cup marked by upsets and tentative play thus far, England`s performance has been distinctly poor. Although they were widely expected to easily trample over weak teams like Algeria and the United States, they have been unable to crack open solid defence, with their forwards like Rooney and Lampard struggling to make an impression. This fumbling approach has infuriated their supporters, many of whom booed their team off after the Algeria match. Here in England, many people acknowledged that the Algerians had shown greater soccer skills.
The newspapers and television are full of criticism and concern. Even people who don`t follow the game express their frustration. Indeed, the weak performance of the English team is the major topic across the country. When I went to the local newspaper shop the other day, I overheard one salesgirl speculating that perhaps the team was unable to play to its potential because of the African heat. I pointed out gently to her and her colleague that actually, it was winter in South Africa, and if anything, the players were probably feeling rather cold.
While England tries to find its rhythm, favourites Spain and Brazil have begun to hit form. Although the former was beaten by unfancied Switzerland, their second match against Honduras showed a more free-flowing Spanish side. And Brazil`s pedestrian 2-1 victory against a plucky North Korea was a reminder that even the great Brazilians cannot sparkle in every match. But their more convincing 3-1 win over Ivory Coast showcased some of their magical dribbling and passing skills.
I have placed a 20-pound bet on Brazil to win the Cup at 6-1 just to keep my interest in the tournament alive. So far, it doesn`t seem a bad wager. In this nation of gamblers, millions are being bet on any number of combinations. You can bet on the exact outcome of a game, or on how many goals a player will score, and with the Internet and cell phones, taking a punt has never been easier. Many people have accounts with bookies, and simply email their bet without leaving their homes. As I watched the Brazil-North Korea at my friend Robbie`s, he told me had a one-pound bet on Brazil to win 5-0. Within a few minutes into the match, he knew he had lost as North Korean defenders showed off their guts and their skills. I was tempted by the odds to take a punt on Spain meeting Brazil in the final at 11-1, it struck me as a reasonable bet. But given Spain`s tentative start, I`m glad I kept my money. The upsets thus far have made this a very lucrative World Cup for the bookies.
The World Cup mania couldn`t have come at a better time for the government. Today, the Chancellor is going to announce an emergency budget that is going to inflict some serious pain on virtually every section of society. But with the football distracting popular attention from fiscal matters, the expected backlash will probably be quite muted, except from left-wing pundits. Even though the public has been prepared for the cuts to come, the message hasn`t quite sunk in. Indeed, the coalition government`s determination to reduce the deficit they have inherited from Labour is about to be translated into a very grim reality.
Even though a recent opinion poll shows that nearly 60 per cent support cuts, the majority knows that they will hurt the poor the most. From local councils to universities, people are expecting the worst. The Conservative Party made no secret of its intentions to slash public expenditure in the run-up to the election. But its coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, are a left-of-centre party and based their campaign on their vision of social justice. The coming reduction in public services will no doubt alienate large sections of their supporters. Indeed, the city of Sheffield, Nick Clegg`s constituency, has already seen a major industrial training initiative launched by Labour disappear as a result of a savings measure. There will be a lot more pain to come as the government`s cost-cutting policies take hold.
Meanwhile, the St George`s cross flies defiantly from car windows and homes across England. Even though we have still to hear the loud roar of “Enger-land, Enger-land!” that follows victory, people continue to be fixated by the football. Should things go badly against Slovenia on Wednesday, the flags will be unfurled, and the country will wake up to the reality of the deep cuts that will transform the welfare state.
However, there is a haven for those who cannot stand football I saw a sign outside a London pub that proclaimed “We loathe football. No plasma screen or World Cup matches here.”