I had planned to watch last night’s World Cup match with a friend I don’t see all that often as he has moved out of London. We had planned to meet at a very large bar near London Bridge that has an outdoor screen. I had naively texted him to say I would get there early to “get us a seat”.
I arrived at London Bridge station to find the whole nearby area in a state of pandemonium. Hundreds and hundreds of young people walked about, in various stages of drunkenness, all looking for a pub to watch the match in, finding them all rammed. The bar I had arranged to meet my friend in had a queue that went to the end of the street, around the next street, all the way down that and then partially down another road. I tried calling him but reception was terrible, almost certainly due to so many active phones being used in the area.
I managed to squeeze into the most old man pub in south London – and then only just. I watched a dull first half in which Belgium were slightly better than England, but also featured so many changes from each of the countries’ respective first teams as to emphasise the dead rubber aspect of the match. The second half was even worse. I missed the Belgium goal due to related chaos, but I didn’t feel cheated. After the match was over, my friend and I retreated to Elephant and Castle to discuss what we thought it all meant. I said England getting to the semis would count as outrageous success to me. We talked about whether going out to Switzerland 0-0 in the quarters after penalties would feel like success; I said it wouldn’t, while my friend wasn’t so certain.
What we could agree upon was how mental the evening had been, and shock at how football-mad the nation seems to have become again, overnight. If one had been in a coma for a few weeks and then woken up on Southwark Street last night, you might have assumed that England had reached the semi-finals. No, this is what it looks like when England play Belgium in a group match that it would be arguably better to have lost; what an England semi-final crowd might look like, I really have no idea. The thought of it genuinely scares me a little. I think I might just watch it, if it happens and let’s be clear here, I am a million miles from taking even a victory against Columbia in the final 16 for granted never mind a semi-final against Spain or Croatia, in the comfort of my own home.
We then talked about the young people we saw revelling after a dull loss to Belgium – they have never experienced England being anything but embarrassingly shit at football before this tournament, something I hadn’t considered in depth before. The “wally with the brolly” incident was over ten years ago, so if you are 18 now you were 7 or 8 then. Put that way, I guess I can understand why we’re seeing such a release. For those of us old enough to remember what it felt like first hand when Phil Neville brought down Moldovan to send England out of the group stages of Euro 2000, we might not get too excited just yet.