Ticket touts and lager louts, tiebreakers and penalty kicks.
Tennis and soccer went at it last week in two soundalike London
precincts: Wimbledon and Wembley. In the end, all England,
including members of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club,
was energized by the soccer. So blurred became the lines between
leisure-class and working-class Londoners that footy-mad tennis
umpires all but called out the scores in Cockneyspeak.
Wimbledon and Wembley. They were host to The Championships and
the European Championship, respectively, and the winner of this
turf war was decisive. "The soccer was so popular," Pete Sampras
conceded last Saturday, "that it seems like Wimbledon has taken
a backseat this year."
In the front seat, fiddling with the radio, was England's soccer
team, which steamed into week 1 of Wimbledon with a pack of fags
and a pint of lager. By Sunday, Euro '96, which the host nation
briefly dominated, had left its Doc Martens boot prints all over
the upholstery of the All England Club's tournament.
Tennis officials at first found this development to be "veddy
fraffle," very frightful indeed. Luke Jensen of the U.S. rang a
rep-tied Wimbledon don to inquire if he and his brother, Murphy,
could wear short-sleeved England football jerseys during their
doubles match on June 26, when England played Germany in the
Euro '96 semifinals. "They are white," said Jensen of the
jerseys. "But before I could finish the sentence, the guy cut me
off and just said no. They nuked us as soon as we mentioned
Nine miles and four letters separate Wimbledon from Wembley, but
the demographic distance has always been infinite. Elegant
placards on the wrought-iron gates of the All England Club purr
babes in arms are free; tattered posters at the Wembley
turnstiles bark no knives. Tennis fans literally don't say boo;
footy fans (at least the German ones) chanted "Moo," the better
to wind up their mad-cow-diseased host nation. "Wimbledon," said
Tony Gale, a professional footballer taking in some of the
action at Wembley. "Bit stuffy, izzit?"
Well...no. That's the thing: As the week wore on, not only did
declasse soccer invade the All England Club but an unprecedented
number of commoners hung about. For starters, the field got
commoner by the day. Third seed Andre Agassi, fifth seed Yevgeny
Kafelnikov, sixth seed Michael Chang and eighth seed Jim Courier
all crashed in the first round. Women's second seed Monica Seles
was bounced in the second round, while men's No. 2 Boris Becker
defaulted in the third after he mis-hit a forehand and partly
tore a tendon in his right wrist. He sought treatment--including
a plaster cast that will keep him out of tennis for at least six
weeks--from the physician for the German fussball team, of which
Becker is all but an honorary member.
"No, it is fine," Becker said when his white-haired Wimbledon
minder tried to steer press questions away from soccer. "I am a
much bigger football fan than I am a tennis fan."
Anyway, Becker's exit put his opponent, 223rd-ranked Neville
Godwin of South Africa, in the round of 16 following a first
week in which a record 10 seeded players were eliminated. If
you'd told Godwin before the tournament that he would be on the
brink of the quarterfinals alongside such luminaries as T.
Johansson, P. Rafter and A. Radulescu, he would have said, "You
are going crazy."
And you are. All of England was barmy all June, with football on
the brain. Even Sampras was watching England on the telly when
he wasn't blowing through the top half of the draw. "It's
growing on me," the archetypal Yank sports fan said of the
soccer. "England-Holland, every five minutes there was a score."
Indeed, England hammered the Dutch 4-1 on June 18. Becker, for
his part, looked forward to seeing England-Germany but only on
TV, for the world's most recognizable German sussed out that he
shouldn't appear in person at Wembley. "Especially," said
Becker, "if Germany wins." The London tabloids had been given to
fits of LET'S BLITZ FRITZ and ACHTUNG! SURRENDER.
British novelist David Lodge last year published Therapy, about
a depressed 58-year-old Englishman who fears that his life and
the life of his nation have been in decline since the summer of
1966, when England beat West Germany 4-2 to win the World Cup at
Wembley. Queen Elizabeth II handed the Jules Rimet trophy to
England's golden-locked captain, Bobby Moore, who is forever
young in the famous photographs from that day, three lions on
the crest of his strawberry-red shirt.
"When it was all over," recalls Lodge's protagonist of that
Sunday 30 years ago, "people went into their back gardens, or
out into the street, grinning all over their faces, to babble
about it to other people they'd never said more than 'Good
morning' to in their lives before. It was a time of hope....We
were beating the world in the things that really mattered to
ordinary people, sport and pop music and fashion and television.
Britain was the Beatles and mini-skirts and That Was the Week
That Was and the victorious England team."
Once again last week in London, that was the week that was.
Britain was The Who and Eric Clapton playing live for
150,000--and football god Pele--in Hyde Park last Saturday. Six
days earlier the Sex Pistols had performed for 30,000 in
Finsbury Park, introduced onstage to their safety-pinned
admirers by aptly named England defender Stuart Pearce and his
backfield mate Gareth Southgate. The pair had helped to beat
Spain in a penalty shoot-out in the Euro '96 quarterfinals on
June 22. Pearce took and made England's third penalty shot,
redeeming himself for having missed in the shoot-out against
Germany in the semis of the '90 World Cup. After their victory
over Spain, Pearce and teammates stayed on the pitch at Wembley
and joined the crowd in singing Three Lions, the current No. 2
song on Britain's Top of the Pops. It goes:
I remember three lions on a shirt
Jules Rimet still gleaming
Thirty years of hurt
Never stopped me dreaming....
Thirty years of hurt: When Wimbledon opened, Britain's prime
minister was in Italy, demanding that Europe lift its ban on
British beef, and English novelist Martin Amis was bravely
seated at Centre Court, having just penned a short story for The
New Yorker called State of England and subtitled: Bad food, bad
breath, bad sex, bad health, and really bad politics. It's
"The country seems to be going through some huge crisis of
confidence," Lodge wrote in Therapy. "More than forty percent of
young people think that Britain will become a worse country to
live in over the next decade. I wasn't the only one, it seems,
to feel that the death of Bobby Moore [in 1993, of cancer, at
51] measured the extent of our decline."
The English team's manager, Terry Venables, acknowledged as much
the day before the semifinal match with Germany. "We can give a
lot to people who are English," he said, "and who haven't felt
too good about things for quite a few years." At Wimbledon, a
roar went up on Court 1 shortly after 7:30 p.m. on June 26. It
was during a men's singles match between two Brits, Tim Henman
and Danny Sapsford, and both players knew immediately what had
happened. "We had gone one-nil up," Henman said later. Indeed,
three minutes into England-Germany, English striker Alan Shearer
had scored on a header, and Wembley levitated with Rule Britannia!
When Germany equalized in the 15th minute, "there was a lot of
screaming in our house," said Steffi Graf. "We were pretty
exhausted after the match." Which is more than she would say of
her own matches on what seems to be an inexorable march to her
seventh Wimbledon title.
As for England-Germany, the rest of the match was simply
matchless. A scoreless second half gave way to 30 minutes of
sudden-death extra time, in which, every minute, one side
appeared suddenly dead. England hit an upright with one shot and
missed another game-winner by the length of a stud on the shoe
of the player sliding in to meet a crossing pass. Germany did
put a ball in England's net, silencing the 75,862 in attendance,
but an unheard whistle disallowed the goal.
So they went to penalty kicks, and both teams scored on their
first five attempts. Finally Sex Pistols presenter Southgate
kicked a weak ball on the ground that German keeper Andreas
Kopke saved. The Germans made their next penalty--they haven't
lost a shoot-out in 20 years--and so won the match. Southgate's
mum asked her son afterward, "Why didn't you belt it?"
The 7,000 Germans in the crowd detonated with delirium,
surrounded in their end-zone section by Day-Glo-clad cops, as if
circled by a yellow highlighter. The scoreboard instructed them
to stay in their seats until the rest of the stadium emptied.
England's and Germany's players linked arms and bowed. "I just
hope there's no trouble," said Gale repeatedly. Gale's 10 years
at left-back for West Ham United, the team of London's
rough-and-tumble East End, had taught him to be cautious. And
sure enough, by 1 a.m. in Trafalgar Square there had been 200
arrests and numerous injuries, German-made cars set alight,
policemen charged by rioting hooligans.
"The thing is," said Alan Hudson, a Chelsea star of the '70s who
was also in the stands at Wembley, "it just grips the whole
country, doesn't it?"
It does. England-Germany was the highest-rated sports program on
English television since...England-West Germany in 1966. The
legacy of Euro '96, which Germany won on Sunday with a 2-1
victory over the Czech Republic, is likely to be not those acts
of violence away from the stadium but renewed self-esteem in
Or is it self-delusion? When England was eliminated, the Brits
immediately threw the weight of their hopes behind the
21-year-old Henman, 62nd in the world tennis rankings but still
alive at the beginning of the second week of Wimbledon. "For
Tim's sake," said Todd Martin of the U.S., the only seeded
player left in the bottom half of the draw--and a possible
opponent of Henman's in the quarterfinals--"I hope you [Britons]
don't put the kind of pressure on him that you have on others in
the past. Or that you do on your football team." But the English
likely weren't listening, their judgment having gone all
tennis-ball-fuzzy with tennis and footy.
"Football's coming home," goes the refrain of Three Lions. Last
Saturday, with Sampras leading 5-4 in the first set of his match
against Karol Kucera, an ovation rolled like thunder through the
Centre Court seats. It was for England goalie David Seaman,
keeper of the six-yard box, now taking his seat in the...Royal
Yes. Football had come home, sized up the leather seats and
settled in. Wimbledon officials may never get it to leave.