Farewell, Ye Olde England Supporters

They were loud, boorish, and stupidly loyal, but bless ’em, they never, ever did the wave

The crawl from the Mineirão stadium in the Belo Horizonte suburbs to the city’s leafy bar and restaurant district of Savassi takes a while. By 5:30 p.m., however, a few hours after the end of the England-Costa Rica match, the streets were thronged with pink-faced, white-shirted English fans. A couple of hours later the atmosphere got rowdy. Flags bearing the names of obscure lower division clubs such as Blackpool and Barnsley were draped from scaffolding, and every few minutes a raucous chorus of “God Save The Queen” or “Ingerland, Ingerland, Ingerland” billowed over the crowd. Determined drinking turned the pink faces red.

In the Orizontino bar, an England fan was getting irritable. “If you don’t give it to me, you’re not getting a fackin’ tip, alright?” he shouted at the waiter, pointing at a carton of cranberry juice behind the bar. He wants the cranberry juice to go with his bottle of Absolut. “And don’t try and fackin’ rip me off, either, you wanker!” he barked. The waiter, who spoke no English, grinned and shrugged.

By midnight, a gang of shirtless fans climbed atop a statue at the end of the street. “Ingerland, Ingerland, Ingerland,” they sang, eyes bulging, fists clenched. Behind them a troop of Brazilian riot police, as heavily armored as Robocop, looked on impassively. It seemed as if, as the expression goes, it was “gonna kick off.” Except it didn’t.

“The English didn’t cause us any trouble at all,” police spokesman Alberto Luiz said the next day. “They were an example of civility. They came to our city to enjoy themselves, even though their team was knocked out. They behaved like true soccer fans. There was a bit of an edgy atmosphere, it’s true, especially when you think about the country’s history with hooligans, but they gave an example of how to behave.”

Expensive ticket prices and travel costs have made this an almost exclusively middle-class World Cup (with the possible honorable exception of the Argentinian fans). But in terms of nationality at least, the tournament is a melting pot. There were 40,000 Colombian fans in Belo Horizonte two weeks ago for their team’s game against Greece, and an estimated 100,000 Argentina supporters in Porto Alegre for the match against Nigeria on Wednesday. In a bar in Fortaleza a week ago, I watched Chile beat Spain surrounded by supporters from the Netherlands, Mexico, the U.S., and Australia, as well as Brazilians.

The TV commercials (McDonalds’ saccharine “we’re glad you came” spot springs to mind) and stadium jumbotrons perpetuate this international ideal, beaming out images of gleaming-toothed fans from every nation. And the jolliness is reflected in the atmosphere in the stadiums—despite the often spectacular soccer on display, it seems crowds can’t go very long without taking part in the lobotomized mass glee of “the wave.”

This is where the determinedly old school England fans come in. As their disappointing team sank beneath the World Cup waves at the Mineirão, they were in fine voice, booming out a throaty, ear-splitting version of “God Save The Queen” before the game (none of the mawkish sentimentality of the extended a cappella versions favored by Brazil and others for these brave English lads and lasses), and roaring “Ingerland, Ingerland, Ingerland” in response to the “Ticos, Ticos” chants of the Costa Rican fans.

The best was yet to come, however. When the wave made its inevitable appearance, sweeping joyfully around the stadium, there was a sense that this, rather than anything that might happen on the field, would be the Agincourt of these proud Englishmen and women. When it reached the England section, the fans stood stiff and motionless. A few trembling one-fingered salutes rose into the sun-drenched afternoon. “Our team might be awful,” was the message, “but we shall never lose our dignity. There shall be no wave here.”

The Brazilian and the Costa Rican fans booed. “What kind of person doesn’t like the wave?” England fans, that’s who. These proud sons and daughters of Albion—descendants of drafty January terraces and the long-ball game and getting stuck in and Bovril and meat pies, of an England from before the Premier League revolution—were defiant. Their response to the booing was swift, cutting and utterly incomprehensible: “Who are ya? Who are ya?” they bellowed.

When the Brazilian fans retorted with mocking cries of “Eliminado! Eliminado!,” the English masses knew they had won. The locals had committed the fatal mistake of making it about soccer. It was never about soccer. It was about supporting your team to the bitter end, even if that team has left you humiliated once again.

At the end of the game, after a minor ruckus broke out between English and Brazilian fans and the riot police moved in (there were stories of similar disturbances at the game against Uruguay in São Paulo, and of glimpses of the moronic element of the England crowd, with numbskull chanting about wars in Europe and in Ireland), there was a rousing, undeserved ovation for Roy Hodgson and his team, to the tune of “Hey Jude.” The players, heads bowed, applauded the fans.

In a World Cup of glistening new stadiums, and waving to the TV camera, and of course the wave, it was, just for a moment, touching to see that one small corner of Brazil remained forever England, loud, boorish, and steadfastly, stupidly loyal.