Sun streamed through the roof as face-painted masses took to their seats for the England v Columbia World Cup quarter-final at south London’s Boxpark Croydon.
With long benches and tables stretched before the screen, it felt more like a big family picnic than a football match. At a stretch, it could have been the setting for the best-behaved banquet you’ve ever seen.
Children got stuck into some heavy-duty drawing in the play area while a DJ played tunes to get the crowd in the mood – not that he needed to.
“We’ll win 2-1,” said Julie Agbowu, 63, from Norbury, who had come with her twin sister, Kim.
“They’re a great team and it’s a brilliant atmosphere here today,” she said.
The Boxpark in Croydon has become synonymous with England men’s matches – packed to the rafters with young men in replica shirts who hurl their pints in the air when England score. But throughout the Women’s World Cup the atmosphere has been very different, though no less passionate or packed, despite the morning kick-offs. Women outnumbered men – and pints have been drunk, not thrown.
Julie and Kim had come as part of a 16-strong team of women from Crystal Palace football club’s Palace for Life foundation.
Catherine D’Rozario, 62, from south Croydon and a teacher for the visually impaired, plays for Palace’s walking team and has been playing football since her teens.
“We went to Wembley to watch England win the Euros last year and it was amazing,” she said. “It’s so great to see how far the women’s game has come.”
Among the flags and the England shirts, tubs of churros were passed around as the tail end of Australia v France was shown. Beers were supped but pints were not the focus here.
Emily Bowen, 15, from Tunbridge Wells, was flying the flag (expertly painted on her face) for England goalkeeper Mary Earps.
She had come with her father, Steve Bowen, 48, a construction manager, both travelling from Tunbridge Wells.
“I’d love to be wearing a Mary Earps shirt but they didn’t make one,” said Emily, who is the goalkeeper for her school team and a grassroots club.
Each time England came near the Colombian goal, there were whoops and sighs – but then, 44 minutes in, the South Americans took the lead. There was no shouting, no swearing. Instead, a hush descended followed by a quiet murmur of disappointment, but the anguished faces said it all.
Lauren Hemp’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time brought the crowd to its feet, releasing a collective roar for the Lionesses; their faces, less anguished, more hopeful.
“I need a drink,” one woman said, visibly relieved. “But we can do it. One more goal early on should do it.”
For others, the goal brought inspiration to get back playing, particularly for Chloe Greer, 26, from Surbiton. “Watching this is making me want to get back on the pitch,” she said. “Definitely.”
Not far from Chloe, sitting quietly with her son, Zachary, 10, was former England player Katie Chapman. “I’d love to be out there playing, but we’re all getting older,” she smiled. ”I had a great career playing and it’s so great to see the energy around women’s football.”
There were more whoops and sighs each time England had possession and then, just after the hour mark, Alessia Russo scored what proved to be the winner.
Fans banged on the tables and the chant “Eng-er-land” erupted. In truth, it felt like England had already won – as any tension and worry in the room evaporated. The party had already started. “We did it!” shouted one woman, as the final whistle blew.
There was group hugging, dancing and a feeling that the World Cup was now within reach. “I told you it would be 2-1,” said Julie. “How amazing was that?”
“They definitely got their momentum in the second half,” Catherine beamed.
A medley of tunes came over the speakers: the obligatory “Three Lions” chorus of “football’s coming home” roared out. Then “Freed from Desire” played and the na na na’s were deafening, before finally, the unofficial England anthem “Sweet Caroline” – belted out by all.