Ahh, England-Sweden. At last, my chance to see the thugs up close. A chance to sit among those brutish, ill-mannered, half-drunk, dyspeptic, football-mad zealots of such great renown. I speak, of course, of the British press.
Anyone who has read a column-inch of the Brits' World Cup coverage will know precisely what I mean. These are the people who cover a broken metatarsal like it's the death of a royal. Who detail down to the pound the champagne bills racked up by the wives and girlfriends of the English players (helpfully shortened to "WAGs"). Who write sentences like this: "Sven Goran Eriksson last night threw down the gauntlet to Sweden—declaring: Come and Abba go if you think you're hard enough!"
Above all, these are the people who celebrate Team England's push into the second round with profound angst, as if it were a great national embarrassment just waiting to happen. This is the lot of fans of the English team as well: dread and dissatisfaction in the face of success.
My hope, then, was to attend Tuesday's post-game presser and witness the absurdity firsthand. That morning I phoned FIFA's media center and found a friendly, accommodating, quite possibly British fellow on the other end. I explained that I wanted to write about the British press. "About how ridiculous, sycophantic, and up each other's arse they are?" he said. "I think that's something I could get behind."
Alas, it was not to be. Despite the flack's assurances, not to mention a protracted effort that involved no little argy-bargy, as the Sun might say, I couldn't gain entrance to the interview room. Actually, I did for a brief moment, only to find a strong Teutonic hand on my jacket, yanking me back outside. "No chance," one of the five people guarding the door told me, making great, emphatic gestures with his hands. "No chance. None at all." I tried to say something, but he cut me off: "I can't talk to you."
I did, however, watch the game from the stands, tucked into the corner of RheinEnergie Stadion in a cluster of mostly England fans. I can report that they are just as neurotic as their media would lead you to believe. And certainly as devout: This morning, I saw one of them splayed on the steps outside the magnificent Dome of Cologne, his chest hair dyed red and shaved in the pattern of St. George's Cross.
One England fan in partcular caught my eye, mostly because he terrified me. Lean and balding, he was a compact man who nevertheless cut a sinister figure, especially when, during an early Swedish corner kick, he rose and yelled, "You fucking cunt!" then sat down and put his arm around his boy. The man wasn't done, either. After the game's first goal, a Swedish fan nearby turned around, let loose a scream, and, inexplicably, held up his cell phone. The Brit delivered a hard shove to his shoulder, then coiled into a fighter's stance. The man's son tried to grab ahold of his father's arm. Everyone froze. England led 1-0.
Over the course of the game, the patter of the English fans took on more and more of a desperate edge. "Come on, England. Please. Please." "We're getting fucking hammered. Hammered." At that point, the score was 1-1. England, as has been its wont, played beneath itself, but there was certainly some cause for optimism. Forward Wayne Rooney started for the first time since fracturing his metatarsal, and when paired with Peter Crouch, the two made for a wonderful comic duo. Rooney is compact and extraordinarily clever with the ball. Crouch is tall and gawky and deliberate; at one moment he fell to the ground attempting a half-volley and killed six people. But instead of focusing on the positive in this 2-2 tie, the British media have gone into mourning on account of Michael Owen's torn ACL. The press is all but writing off England's chances now, having apparently forgotten that they spent the last week suggesting Owen be benched.
After the match, the two sets of fans took to different parts of Cologne. The Swedes were enjoying themselves. As one put it: "We're playing shit football, and we're going to go home. But we had a great party, so who cares?" Many had set up camp next to a pond, and the party stretched deep into the night, with everybody tripping over the beer bottles littering the ground. A group of mostly Swedes and Germans crowded beneath one large tent, and for hours they stomped on tables and sang each others' songs. Eventually the riot police were called in, and they cleared out the tent. The fans shrugged and moved off to the side, where the singing and dancing continued. I saw one cop smile behind his mask and sing along.
And the English? The last I saw of them, they were quietly sipping beers outside a Total gas station. On the England soccer fan, an expression of civility looks more like depression, and here it was only natural he'd be down. After all, England had just clinched its group and was advancing to the second round with its best player back on the pitch. Now it was time to really worry.