Euro 2012’s England vs. Ukraine match is freighted with past disappointments


...this is bound to end badly.


Jaime Reina

London — A cool, dry Tuesday evening, in The Lion, a north London pub. Outside the temperature is mid-60s. Inside, the over-capacity crowd has raised the temp to at least 98.6 degrees — and no windows are open.

The occasion is the match between England and host country Ukraine in the European Football championships.

England has gone through a lot of changes in recent years. For example, watching the footie is now a co-educational pastime. There are a lot of women in the pub. The pub itself is more Brooklyn than traditional. There are sofas instead of snugs. Real cocktails are on offer instead of just beer, but the choice is moot as there are so many people in the room you can't get to the bar to order a drink anyway.

But one thing hasn't changed. England’s football team always disappoints sooner or later, and to be a supporter is a challenge to the empirical, pragmatic mindset that is supposedly at the core of the English character.

How else to explain why so many youngsters are in the pub. Many look like they are in their early twenties and so were born after England's last significant shot at glory, when they were put out of the 1990 World Cup by Germany in the semi-finals on a penalty shoot-out.

Some were just toddlers in 1986 when Diego Maradona single-handedly (pun intended) eliminated England from the World Cup with his infamous "hand of God" goal — where the referee looking right at him failed to spot that the great Argentinean had used his fist, not his head, to put the winner in the back of the net.

Even the middle-aged in the crowd are too young to remember the night England last won a major international tournament: the 1966 World Cup.

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As for the European Championships, the team's record isn't worth mentioning. They have failed to qualify for the quadrennial tournament five times in the last five decades.

This is hard on English self-esteem. Americans cannot imagine just how hard, because they mostly play sports invented in the US: baseball, basketball, gridiron football. The day has arrived when, if there was a truly "world" series it is arguable whether the US would win. But until the day comes when Americans have to watch Venezuela play Cuba for the World Cup of ‘beisbol,’ they will remain ignorant of the deep embarrassment and shame the English feel watching the game they invented dominated decade after decade by other countries they have defeated in World Wars.

Yet when England plays in a major tournament, the country comes to a standstill. Hope with an asterisk triumphs over experience. People fill the pubs, supermarkets are denuded of cans of lager as those with family responsibility sit down in front of the telly and fervently try to believe that this time will be different.

All of this history buffeting up against hope suffuses the atmosphere in the moments before kick-off. In a last bout of advertising — the match is televised on the commercial ITV station — an ad comes up urging the crowd to "Kiss the badge, download the app and bet with William Hill." England's most famous bookies (betting is legal here) are offering 5 to 1 odds that Wayne Rooney, England's talismanic striker who is coming back from a two-game suspension, will score the first goal.

The team takes the field and after sporadic hoarse cries of, "C'mon England!" a silence descends on the crowd.

This is the epitome of the English fan experience — the total silence in which the crowd suffers. The essence of watching a championship in any bar in America is the kibitzing among strangers. The jokes, the barracks humor, are part of what makes it fun.

Fun is not part of the picture here.

Especially in this match. Ukraine must win to have a hope of advancing, plus they are playing in front of their home crowd. They start purposefully. Wayne Rooney looks like he's had a few extra potatoes at the training table while serving his suspension. Slow, round, and earth-bound, he misses an easy header in England's only decent chance of the first half.

But Ukraine for all their possession and pressure fail to score as well. A collective exhalation of breath as the half-time whistle blows and a hubbub of chat commences. We have shared the agony, so now it is ok to speak to strangers.

I start chatting with a skinny guy who has managed to perch on the windowsill just where I've been standing. It's no more than 5 inches deep. "Are you suffering yet?" I ask.

"I'm an England fan, I have to suffer."

In the loo, a guy who has been standing close to me in the pub stares at the wall in front of him. He says to me (I'm the only other person in the gents) "I don't like this."

"I know," I say. "They need to do more than sit back and defend."

"If you set yourself up for a draw," he agrees. "You're going to lose."

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Back out in the pub, my new skinny friend is just staring, keeping his focus for the crucial 45 minutes ahead.

His name is Charles Tate, 30 years old, a graduate student in philosophy at King's College London. He barely remembers any good times for the England team. And he knows that it could be along wait for England to win anything again.

In 2010, Tate was watching in a sports bar in the West End, London's downtown, when England was knocked out by Germany in the round of 16. "We figured, shit, we're going to let go. A couple of thousand of us went to Trafalgar Square and ran into the fountains as if we'd won." But England hadn't won, they had been humiliated by Germany. "If you're an England supporter, you can't rely on footballing moments for great highs. They are so few and far between."

Why live and die without feeling the thrill of victory, if you've only known the agony of defeat? Tate, by the way, is concentrating on ethics at the moment in his pursuit of a Ph.D.

Conversation dwindles. The last commercial before the second half is on. It's for The odds have got longer on Wayne Rooney scoring next. They are now 8 to 1.

Should have taken that bet. Three minutes into the half, England captain Steven Gerrard slides a pass across the Ukraine goal mouth that bounces off a few legs, eludes the goal keeper and hits Rooney on the head — he doesn't have to jump — and it bounces into the back of the net.

A few minutes later Ukraine pressing forward seem to score but the ball is hooked out of mid-air by England defender John Terry. The referee and the linesman seem not to notice what television replays clearly show: the ball has broken the plane of the goal line.

The match ends 1-0. The cheering is loud and raucous but not overly long. Experience teaches the England fan that glory is fleeting.

I ask Charles Tate about the Ukrainian goal that wasn't. The empiricist in him acknowledges it was a score, the ethicist in him doesn't seem to mind that it wasn't allowed. Perhaps he's planning to call his doctoral thesis, "These Things Have a Way of Evening Out Over Time: Empirical Observations on the Ethics of Luck in Football Fandom."

We shake hands knowing that the next opponent is Italy, a team England has only beaten once in a major competition.

This morning's Guardian sums up nicely the England fans' thoughts the morning after. "Expectations have already been exceeded. No doubt over the next few days it will be time to revive the familiar agony of renewed hope."

Agony and hope — two words forever yoked together when considering English football fans.