Sports Nut

Among the Hugs

Watching the World Cup in a small English town: no hooligans, lots of elated blokes.

Shrewsbury is the birthplace  of Charles Darwin, a fact not lost on the town’s graffiti  artists

SHREWSBURY, England—When I discovered I’d be in England during the World Cup, I went on a quest to find the perfect place to watch the local fans suffering along with their beloved national team. After careful research, I settled on this small West Midlands town. I was told that Shrewsbury, the birthplace of Charles Darwin and neglected England goalkeeper Joe Hart, might still carry remnants of the once-famed English hooliganism. “You’re more likely to come across people vomiting in the streets and singing ’No Surrender’ in a small town than London,” my friend promised.

But as England wrapped up a tidy 1-0 victory over Slovenia on Wednesday, I somehow found myself watching in the “PlayZone” of a pub called Two Henrys. A group of about a dozen England fans stared at a television screen sitting adjacent to a painting of an anthropomorphic cartoon dog and a set of gumball machines, while three infants in England shirts played on a McDonald’s-style jungle gym. As it was, no one in the PlayZone was belting out verses of “No surrender to the IRA (scum)” or booting in the car park. The England of drunken football-related violence, it seems, has been largely consigned to the history books by a series of government crackdowns and an evolved, family-oriented, and increasingly corporate soccer culture.

Paul Parker, the former England defender most famous for his role as both a goat and a near-hero in England’s 1990 World Cup semifinal defeat, credits that team with causing a major cultural shift. “When we got to that semifinal, football was in the doldrums here,” Parker told me, citing the twin 1980s disasters of Heysel and Hillsborough in which dozens of people died at matches involving English club teams. “There was a bad taste about football in England. People didn’t want to be involved in it,” Parker recalled. That all changed after 1990. “People who weren’t football fans started recognizing footballers. Major companies started wanting to be involved in football again.”

A St. George’s Cross hangs above the Swan Inn in central Shrewsbury

While there would be no violence at Shrewsbury’s PlayZone, the pervasiveness of football in every aspect of English life was on full display throughout town. In the local Starbucks employees wore red England away shirts and lamented having to work during the country’s most important game of the tournament. The St. George’s Cross hung from cars, bicycles, homes, and every other shop window, from formal clothing stores to opticians.

On top of the intense pressure from England fans, the team is under constant media scrutiny for the next month, especially because the squad had not lived up to expectations prior to yesterday’s game. The media frenzy “seems to get worse every time there’s a World Cup,” a young supporter named Rich told me at another pub in the center of town prior to the game. “That’s why the players are shit-scared every time the take to the pitch. I’m bloody shaking me nerves, never mind how the players feel.”

The cycle of elation and disappointment is overly familiar here, having repeated itself every four years since 1990 (with the exception of 1994 when England failed to qualify for the World Cup). The tournament will start with expectations heightened beyond the realm of possibility by some combination of the players, the media, and the manager. Then there will be an initial letdown or a major gaffe (or gaffes) in one of the opening group games. This tournament has already had more foibles than the fans and media can count: Robert Green’s “hand of clod” goalkeeping travesty, the “exquisite torture” of England’s 0-0 draw against Algeria, and Wayne Rooney’s wincing after the team was booed off of the pitch to name just a few. (Paul Parker, by the way, told me that Rooney should never have lashed out at the fans who booed the England team. “There’s been players playing in my time, who had 20-30,000 people singing songs about the color of their skin,” the black ex-player said. “But when we walked off the pitch, could we say anything? No. Because we weren’t going to win that battle.”)

England supporters get ready for the Slovenia match at the Shrewsbury Hotel, a  pub in the town center

The letdown after the Algeria game was especially harsh, with the team taking a hammering in the press and losing the faith of many ardent supporters. “With Algeria, as soon as they kicked off, you were like this is going to be hell,” Rich told me on the patio of the Shrewsbury Hotel. His prediction prior to the Slovenia match: “If I was having a bet today with sort of me last 10 pounds or whatever, I’d go on 0-0 and we’d go out.”

The next phase in the cycle came with the convincing 1-0 win over Slovenia: a return to favored status in the media and a renewed flicker of hope among the truest England supporters. “We’ll fight our way through it and win it by the odd goal,” Parker correctly surmised prior to the Slovenia match. “Then we’ll go on and start to ‘win the World Cup’ again for some unknown reason.”

For this round of redemption to last longer than a few days, the English must beat the dreaded Germans. Given Germany’s impressive form, the more-likely scenario is that they simply lose and enter the final phase of the cycle: total self-flagellation.

Still, hope—coupled with disappointment and skepticism, of course—will always spring eternal with England fans. “I’m happy with the performance, but there’s still a little bit more to go,” a tattooed, middle-aged Fabio Capello look-alike in an England shirt told me immediately after the Slovenia win. “The people that come out in the World Cup and the European Championships are not really into football, they’re all thinking we’re going to win it. The actual fans, you’re a bit more realistic, aren’t you?”

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