WIMBLEDON, England — Inside the players’ lounge, a British security guard glanced at his watch. Two minutes to seven. He reached over and flicked on the bottom TV set.
“Will this disturb anyone?” he asked.
There were already two TVs going, both brand new Sonys, both showing the tennis matches in beautiful, high-tech color. This bottom one was an old General Electric in a wooden case.
“Will this disturb anyone?” he asked again, raising the volume.
“No.” “Turn it up,” came the answers, as people wandered in from the terrace. “Make it louder. . . . “
This column will not be about tennis, because England was not about tennis Wednesday, it was about soccer, the whole country, and I mean the whole country, from every pub to every living room to every highway jammed with commuters leaving work so as to be home by seven, kickoff time. Being American, I have always wondered about this World Cup business. Soccer? Come on. What’s the big fuss?
Let me tell you about the fuss. . . .
“We didn’t think we could get this far, but now our dream is alive,” the TV announcers said as the Brit players trotted out to face West Germany in the World Cup semifinals.
Note the words “we” and “our.” On this one special night, England was England, one for all, all for one, even journalists. If the team could just win this match, it would reach the final for the first time since 1966. Remember, this is a country which prides itself on sportsmanship, some cynically believe, because it always loses. Think about it. There are few British world champions in sports. Heck, the last British tennis player exited Wimbledon last week. And this is their tournament. But soccer — a game which Britain invented — soccer suddenly meant hope. On this night, on some faraway field in Turin, Italy, there was a chance to shed the good- loser image, to reach the final of the biggest sporting event in the world! You know Chicago and the Cubs? You know Boston and the Red Sox? Multiply by 100. You have a vague idea about England and the World Cup.
“Come on, lads,” the security guard whispered as the players stood at attention for “God Save the Queen.” . . .
Down in the Wimbledon Museum gift shop, the sales people were glued to a radio. Score? What’s the score?
“It’s all anyone wants to talk about,” said one saleswoman. “I ‘eard there were 25,000 tickets still available to the Rolling Stones concert tonight.”
“I ‘ad two tickets and turned ’em back,” added a young salesman in a rugby jersey. “I ‘eard the Stones ‘ave giant screens on stage so they can watch it themselves.”
Would you doubt it? Not if you were here. You could almost feel the entire country tremble at 7 o’clock, even here, at Wimbledon, the center of the tennis universe. In the journalists’ work room, in the gatehouse by the entrance: Soccer. Why, even in the lobby of the players’ building, I saw seven people squeezed behind a Toshiba.
“Come on!” yelled one, as an English striker headed downfield with the ball skipping just ahead of him. “Come on!”
Tennis? Did someone say tennis? At 7 o’clock, Ivan Lendl was battling Brad Pearce on Centre Court. Guess what? There were plenty of seats available. Same for Court 2, where Boris Becker was disposing of Brad Gilbert in three sets. Not long after he won, the West German superstar bounced into the interview room and announced: “We have to make this short, for obvious reasons.”
His team was playing, too, you know. He had a TV waiting.
Soccer. The score was 0-0 midway through the first half, when I wandered down to the employees’ cafeteria. There, photographers and writers squeezed with waitresses and busboys in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Another TV set.
“COME ON, GARY!” came a roar when English forward Gary Lineker broke away from the pack. He tried a shot, but the ball caromed off a diving West German. “AAAAAHHHNOOOOOO!”
The room pulsed. This was more than a Super Bowl or a World Series where you have to ask, “Which team are you rooting for?’ No such questions here. This event comes only once every four years. You have one team, one team only.
At 7:30, a janitor came rushing in and sidled up to me. “How we doing, mate?” he asked, going tip-toed for a view.
“We’re, uh, doing OK,” I stammered. “Tie score.”
Objectivity had been lost days ago, when England beat Cameroon to advance to the semis. Now, in honor of the West Germans, the tabloids carried headlines such as “TEAR THEIR HERR OUT!” Stories were broadcast about how half of England’s population would be watching this event — including Prince Charles and Princess Di, who were allowing 8-year-old Prince William to stay up late for this special occasion.
“We are giving a rather good show so far,” the TV announcer said, as halftime approached with the game still scoreless. The Dog and Fox is a pub in the middle of Wimbledon village. On the paneled wall is a huge chart of the tennis results, which, on most nights, you could read easily. On this night you could not see it. The place was packed like a tuna tin, teenagers, grandparents, factory workers, standing on tables, sweating in a sticky sea of smoke and spilled beer. They were singing when I got there, different melodies, all the same message:
“WE LOVE YOU EN-GLAND! OH, YES WE DO. . . .”
“GOD SAVE OUR GRACIOUS QUEEN. . . . “
I crammed in behind an old man as the second half began on the TV. His face was beet red. I soon saw why: He had six glasses of beer sitting atop the radiator, and he grabbed one after every missed shot as if to steady his nerves. When West Germany scored on a free kick, he slammed his fist into his lap and turned to me. “I knew it!” he yelled. “I knew it! I’ve been watching football all my life. We’re going to lose it on that.”
But a few minutes later, when Lineker spun and kicked the ball on a diagonal miracle past the West German goalie — it’s in the net! — suddenly the old man was on his feet, along with at least 200 of his barmates. Tie score!
“EN-GLAND! EN-GLAND! EN-GLAND!”
It went like this for the next hour, through regulation play, through
“extra” play — soccer’s version of overtime — tie score, still tie score, screams and songs and ooohs and aahhhs and booze and cigarettes, right up to the penalty kicks which would decide this magic game. I rubbed my eyes. My lap was soaked with beer. There was a guy in a red sweatshirt at my feet, his elbows on my knees. Another man was now sharing my chair, his sweat on my back. Nobody had space. Nobody wanted any. It was one of those rare, teeming masses of humanity all pulling for one cause. A teenager with his face painted like the British flag raised his glass and howled. “AHHOOOOOOOO! COME ON, ENGLAND!”
Now the penalty kicks. Each team sends one shooter against the opposing goalie; whoever has the most after five shots wins the game. Can you believe it? That’s how the whole thing is decided. England went first. The shot was good, corner of the net! The room erupted! West Germany followed. Its shot was also good. The room sagged. Second shot for England. Good! An explosion! Second for West Germany. Good. A moan. Third shot. Good for England! Third shot. Good for West Germany.
For a brief moment, it felt like we would be locked in this time forever, the whole country glued to TV’s and radios, one giant wish upon a star. For one brief moment . . .
Fourth shot for England. No good.
“NOOOOOO!” the room screamed, as a player named Pearce kicked it straight into the goalie’s hands. West Germany made its shot. England missed the next one — the ball ricocheting in to the air — and it was over. The West Germans ran onto the field. The English coach bit his lower lip. The bar went silent.
For the first time since I arrived, I could actually hear the voices from the TV set. “West Germany will play in the World Cup final,” they said. England was a runner-up again.
What could you say? What could anyone say? The old man in front of me just sat there for a while. Finally he rose. “I’ve got to get outta ‘ere.”
I followed him outside. There were people all over the courtyard. They sat in silence. One crew-cut young man buried his face in his hands and began to weep.
You wonder about the fuss of this World Cup, and I guess that picture says it all. Tears. Before the night was over, there would be violence as well. You mix sports and country and you get a potent blend. Sadly, only one team goes home happy.
Inside the Dog and Fox, the TV announcers were talking about “the fine British effort.” They would be good losers, as usual.
“Turn it off!” someone yelled. As I headed for the door, someone did.