I have been to games at Old Wembley (most memorably, Watford’s 1999 play-off triumph) and this wasn’t even my first experience of New Wembley (I’ve seen Saracens play there a couple of times). In terms of England, I’d previously seen schoolboy and under-21 internationals, and I have of course seen the England cricket team in action many times. But the full, senior-level England football team? This was a first.
The opposition was the not-so-mighty San Marino, a minnow side ranked joint 208th (ie. joint last) in the FIFA rankings. England, by the way, are 18th. The domestic equivalent (based on league positions at the time of the match) would be Newcastle United playing Harpenden Town. The final result could not possibly be in doubt; just about everyone going to the game did not merely expect that England would win, they knew it (an unusual experience for me to say the least; you just don’t get this sort of feeling on the way to Watford games).
The question, therefore, was not would England win but by how many goals, and whether San Marino might manage to defy expectations and get a consolation one for themselves. This, after all, has happened before – back in 1993, they scored after just eight seconds; what everyone forgets is the seven England went on to score, not that any of it mattered as we failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
Not that qualification for the 2016 European Championship is going to be problematic, for the tournament has expanded to 24 places, presumably to ensure that none of the big teams can ever fail to qualify. England have been given the easiest of groups, from which qualification would be nigh-on impossible to screw up – even for a side that did as badly as England did in the World Cup this summer. In other words, my first England experience would be the most predictable game in a predictable qualification group.
On the international stage, minnow teams like San Marino seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to remind people of the variety of countries that exist in this crazy world (FIFA, by the way, has more members than the United Nations). Also, they can form the basis for humorous travelogues like Charlie Connelly’s Stamping Grounds and Tony Hawks’s Playing the Moldovans at Tennis (quite why no-one’s done this with San Marino yet is a mystery to me). It must, though, be pretty cool to be Sanmarinese, if only because (as I mused in the pub before the game), the country has such a small population that any man between the ages of 16 and 40 who’s half-decent at football would be in with a shout of playing for the national team. This is the sort of national team that is an argument in favour of some sort of pre-qualifying round for the Euros and the World Cup.
Alighting at Wembley Park station, there were a few desultory England chants, many kids excited at being taken to see England (despite the following day being a school day) and the odd sight of people draped in the light blue and white flag of the opposition. Among the usual array of items on sale along Wembley Way – scarves, badges, poorly-printed tee-shirts – were half-and-half scarves. These are scarves in the colours of both teams playing; half in the white and navy (and red trim) of England, half in the blue and white of San Marino. They also carried such important information as the venue (“Wembley – The Home of Football”) and the date of the encounter. Something of a one-off souvenir, then. They were, from what I could hear from the retailers, going for £10 each.
I don’t get half-and-half scarves. Why would anyone at a football match want to wear something that includes the opposition’s colours? When, exactly, did they become a feature of big games? And who buys them – neutrals who can’t decide which team to support (unlikely), or people who want a souvenir of that particular game? Is this the sort of thing that gets given to the people in the corporate boxes along with the complimentary programme? Do people collect half-and-half scarves from the matches they’ve been to in the same way that people collect programmes?
Getting into the ground itself – a vast improvement on the crumbling old edifice it replaced, it must be said – the atmosphere felt strangely flat, and that wasn’t just because the bars in the stadium were not serving alcohol due to a UEFA rule of some sort.
That’s right – there was no beer.
Usually, for football matches in England there is a ruling about the sale of alcoholic beverages which would strike many attendees of other spectator sports (or of football matches in other countries) as odd. This rule states that you cannot consume your booze within view of the pitch – you have to consume it while standing in the crowd by the bar, which isn’t great (I have on occasions flouted this rule by bringing a hip-flask with me, which also breaks the rule about smuggling booze into the ground). Also, it is a proven fact that beer sold inside sports venues is hideously over-priced. Even so, not serving beer at all strikes me as somehow wrong.
This being 2014, I complained about this on Twitter. To my surprise, someone I’ve never met ‘favourited’ my tweet. Note to self: Using hashtags on Twitter really does work.
Rather surprisingly, the ground itself was more than half-full; a total of 55,900 people had come to see the match. It didn’t feel like that, though. I cannot help but think that this was the sort of game that would have been better held at a smaller venue; there are, of course, numerous arguments for having England games at various venues throughout the country, and I think that would be a very good idea, but this notion is of course trumped by the fact that the FA is still paying off the money it blew on rebuilding Wembley. Money comes first.
Being behind one of the goals, I and my fellow-England fans each had a small, plain white banner tied to our seats with an elastic band. These, we were informed, were to be held up when the band (one of the Guards regiments, no less) played the National Anthem so that our end of the ground would look like a giant Cross of St George. This would inspire the team and look good on the telly. It might’ve worked, too, had the band not played a setting of the National Anthem that was almost unrecognisable. We in the stands didn’t even realise they were playing God Save the Queen until about half-way through!
The atmosphere struggled to get going as England made a few desultory efforts against San Marino’s defence-heavy outfit (this is a team that, having only scored 19 goals in their 24-year existence, has largely forsaken attack in favour of as many defenders as possible; a legacy of their having to play every game against teams hoping to score seven or eight times). Down to our right, a middle-aged bald man shed his shirt and tried his best to gee everyone up with a couple of repetitive chants. Some joined in, others made adverse comments about the size of his beergut. Still, his rendition of God Save the Queen was more in tune than that of the Guards band.
The deadlock was finally broken after 25 minutes, and from thereon it really was a question of how many goals would England score (five, in the end). That said, one (the first) was scored after their goalie got bundled over (I’ve seen goals disallowed for less), another was a penalty and one of the ones in the second half was an own goal. England, of course, dominated play but I reckoned the best player out there was the busiest; the San Marino goalie, an accountant called Aldo Simoncini. But for him, they goal tally could’ve been in double figures.
Maybe it was the predictability of the encounter, but I found it hard to motivate myself to cheer on the team. I could understand why some supporters opted to ironically cheer the rare San Marino expedition into England’s half of the pitch, and cheer loudly whenever Joe Hart got the ball (he, apparently, won the online vote for man of the match, receiving 63% of the vote; Jack Wilshere, who was declared man of the match by the ITV commentators, got 11% in the same poll, in which one presumably could not vote for opposition players). At one point there was more interest in the obligatory Mexican wave (which went round the ground three times) than in the events on the pitch. A few blokes even stood up to applaud when a Sanmarinese player got substituted late in the game; I don’t recall that happening with the England substitutions.
Despite the large crowd (not large by Wembley standards, of course, but at 55,990 it was still more than the capacity of most Premier League grounds), the atmosphere felt flat. We’d expected England to win, and we’d got that. But I couldn’t help but think that there was something missing. Evidently, I prefer football matches where I can’t comfortably predict the outcome in advance.
As I queued for some post-match chips on Wembley Way while everyone else streamed towards the Tube station, I heard the guys selling the half-and-half scarves trying to flog them at half-price. There were few takers.