How’s your voice this morning? And your head? Your nerves? The answers are probably, in order: shredded, throbbing and frayed.
After an evening of almost obscene tension, England were knocked out of the 2022 World Cup by the reigning champions, France, 2-1. It was a familiar ending for the England men’s team, but how they arrived at that dispiriting point all felt rather different.
At the final whistle, as the England players collapsed on the turf of the Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar, home fans at the Wood House pub in south-east London gave them a standing ovation. England had dominated the play and the defeat, while crushing, was also hopeful.
“Everyone knows that was a great performance,” said Will Pethybridge, one of the locals. “We’ll get the rub of the green one of these days. That’s why people here aren’t angry and aggressive. No one’s going to be going out and smashing up a Citroën tonight!”
Before the match, the optimism was irresistible. Morocco’s shock victory in the afternoon match against Portugal made it feel that whichever team prevailed in the England-France game would be heavy tournament favourites. Nigel Roberts, another Wood House regular, looking around the pub as the fervour built, added: “God knows what’ll happen if we get to the final.”
The match had even piqued the interest of England fans who had previously not been exactly feeling the Qatar World Cup. “I’m not interested in this particular tournament – for moral reasons, gay rights,” said Justine Ellis. “And I’ve just put the Christmas tree up today. It shouldn’t be happening now!”
So why watch this match? “I’m more interested in being festive than patriotic,” replied Ellis. “I like Gareth Southgate. I like the team, who they are, what they stand for.”
The match started and the heady vibes were soon punctured – after 17 minutes to be exact, when French midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni lasered a shot into the bottom corner. The boisterous crowd at the Wood House fell uncomfortably silent. It was broken by one fan: “Fuck the French!” Then some strained laughs.
There were not many French fans to be found, at least in this corner of London. And France are harder to demonise (at least on a football field) than time-honoured foes Germany, Argentina or Portugal. In the Wood House, Marie-Pierre Denaro, a teacher from Paris who moved to London 24 years ago, was not taking any chances. “I’m feeling I’m not going to tell anyone I’m French,” she admitted, as the first half progressed.
When, after 24 minutes, a VAR appeal for a penalty after Harry Kane goes down is rejected, the boos are loud and long. “I think the England fans are going to start blaming it on the ref,” said Denaro, keeping her voice low.
There were warmer feelings towards the referee, Brazilian Wilton Sampaio, after 52 minutes, when he did award a spot kick for a foul on Bukayo Saka. Kane buried it, and the Wood House descended into end-of-days delirium. People didn’t throw their pints in the air – this isn’t the Boxpark Croydon after all. And besides, they were in proper glasses so it might have hurt when they landed.
The tension escalated uncomfortably throughout the second half. Then on 77 minutes, France’s Olivier Giroud won the clash-of-the-foreheads battle with Harry Maguire and got his frosted tips on a cross to send France into a 2-1 lead. The energy was sucked out of the room like a vortex had opened up.
But then, a second penalty for England. By now, Sampaio was starting to find himself on a lot more Christmas card lists. “I can’t watch,” said a lot of grown adults in the Wood House. It was probably better not to: Kane blasted it over the bar. The stricken groans from the few who didn’t avert their eyes told you everything.
Of course, there was one final twist. In the 99th minute, Marcus Rashford stood over a free kick. Destiny awaited England’s Robin Hood, but his shot sailed just over the bar. “I feel happy,” said Denaro, the French fan, slipping away from the pub. And perversely, when the dust settles, many England supporters will feel, maybe not exactly that, but less distraught than usual.