/ 2 June 2008

Europe gears up for a six-week party

In the week before a major tournament like Euro 2008 the streets of England’s towns and cities take on an unusually unified look.

The red and white flag of St George appears everywhere. It can be seen draped in shop displays, fluttering from houses and stuck to the sides of every other car.

The tie that binds together so many otherwise disparate communities is the England football team and a fervent hope they will succeed at last on the global stage.

That those dreams of glory inevitably end in tears and bitter recriminations at yet another penalty shoot-out exit doesn’t stop the same process beginning again two years later.

But not this time. For the first time in 14 years, England are staying at home while a top international event takes place without them.

Steve McClaren’s woeful reign ended in failure after failing to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals, which starts on June 7 in Austria and Switzerland, plunging a country of passionate football lovers into a state of denial.

For a country that takes such pride in the interest generated across the world by its domestic league — a division which has supplied at least one representative in the Champions League final for the last four years — it has been quite a shock to see the national team struggle so badly.

While Manchester United are newly installed as champions of Europe, England have been reduced to playing a goodwill friendly against Trinidad and Tobago, while the rest of Europe gears up for a six-week party.

Enthusiasm for this month’s tournament would normally be approaching fever pitch in England now. Pubs would be packed for England’s matches and most other games would be watched and debated voraciously.

Instead, with not a single British team taking part, it would be easy to be oblivious to the fact that 16 of Europe’s finest teams will be slugging it out for continental supremacy.

ITV, one of the television companies showing Euro 2008 in the UK, have been running an advert in which a depressed fan throws a punctured ball into a bin before suddenly cheering up and deciding that the chance to watch top-quality football was more important than England’s woes.

That campaign may prove to be wishful thinking. Television audiences are likely to be low, with only the semifinals and final set to draw respectable ratings.

The cost to the economy of the national team’s absence has been estimated at over half a billion pounds as fans who would have splashed out on beer, food, flags, and flat-screen TVs save their cash for next season.

Fans who do watch the tournament have been debating who to support, with Spain — featuring Premier League stars Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas — high on the list.

Croatia, who were widely praised when they knocked England out in the qualifying stage, will have their followers, as will Portugal, who include the likes of Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Chelsea’s Ricardo Carvalho.

But supporting another country won’t sit easy with fans who travel in vast numbers to watch England. It promises to be a quiet few weeks for England’s outcasts. – AFP