Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Foreign Field Forever England

Saturday afternoon in north west London was surreal. England won a football match with ease and watching them was a pleasant experience.

Come again? England are the great under-achievers of international football (or is that Spain?) who breathlessly struggle to qualify from the group stages of tournaments, only to hit their own particular glass ceiling, known as the quarter-finals, time after time.

England don't bang them in any more, as every minnow has become a potential banana skin (no more cliches, I promise).

3-0 says comprehensive victory all right, even if the opponents were Israel, because there are no easy games these days in international football (I lied, sorry).

On my first visit to England's new old home, they won for the first time and in their first competitive fixture there, so forgive my wilful ignorance, but I put it down it to the gleaming new stadium.
It reminded me of the Stade de France, only newer, bigger and better all-round. The new Wembley, if not foreign in feel, is decidedly un-English.

Gone are the dreadful sight lines, restricted views, urine-soaked toilets and walkways, rude employees, crushes of fans, booing of foreign national anthems, overpriced cuisine and queues for toilets. I lie - the last three were still depressingly there to be endured, although the male toilets were all classy minimalist cubicles.

But overall I was amazed at the sense of space everywhere. From the capacious and airy walkways where no one bumped into each other, to the seats with ample legroom and the lofty, light-filled arena interior itself, this was far from the Wembley I remember.
The old one was more hindrance than help, an antiquated dinosaur which made fans annoyed for a variety of reasons.

"It looks like Stansted Airport to me" said a Mexican friend when I showed him my photos from Saturday. Bingo, same architect - Sir Norman Foster.
I was told that Germany's national anthem was drowned out by boos two weeks earlier, but Israel's was not. While some blockheads insisted on hollering obscenities for no reason or standing up and blocking others' views, despite the perfect sight lines, the vast, vast majority were well behaved - another breath of fresh air.
Long may that continue, although I don't expect half as much hospitality to be shown to the Russians. A comfortable victory undoubtedly helped the fans' mood, a sense of relief shared by the England players and coach.

There must have been smiles all round in the home dressing room after the final whistle, especially after Michael Owen in the 49th minute did what many a fan has hollered internally or externally when a striker receives the ball with his back to goal - "Turn and crack it!"

Manager Steve McClaren will have been particularly pleased by the result. The former Middlesbrough boss is still on a hiding to nothing, having already dropped points in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, and with a press pack of hounds sniffing blood and just waiting for him to trip up.

Any euphoria remaining from England's contemptuous swatting of Israel's brief challenge in Group E will have been condemned well and truly to the dustbin of memory if Russia steal at least a point at the same venue this Wednesday.

The assassination knives will be sharpened more than ever if the three lions don't beat Russia, and McClaren will be fingering the holiday brochures for Summer 2008.

Guus Hiddink is the world's best coach, so England beware...But at least we now have the stadium on our side.

Wembley Saga

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile.

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