It’s almost 30 years since I left the UK, and for the past 3 weeks I have visited family, friends, old haunts and new places while two unlikely events happened simultaneously – a heat wave that lasted two months (and counting) and a strong run by the plucky young English football team in the World Cup.
I had to remind my fellow travellers that England rarely has weather like this. The last time was 1976. England had not seen rain since May and there’d been over a month of temperatures in the high 20s and early 30s, which seemed hotter due to the perpetual mugginess.
Arriving from Australia, where no rain for months is the norm, you had to pinch yourself that this was England, not Perth, WA. English houses are simply not built for this heat – as it is so unusual – and the nights were quite uncomfortable. We were relieved when the gauge dropped to the early to mid-20s in our final week so we could sleep easier. Opening the window was the only answer as homes do not have air conditioning, but when it’s a muggy 24 degrees all night long there is no respite.
As the sun was up til 9.30 at night, it meant the days grew hotter as the afternoon wore on, with relative cool mornings making way to searing evenings.
Still, we were blessed. The parched parks and ovals were a reminder of the continual heat, and we could do anything and go anywhere.
A T20 game, whose tickets we had purchased months earlier in a fit of positive pique, was one of the highlights and a run feast took place before our eyes in a small county ground rock solid and perfect for batting. Who’d be a bowler? The team batting first put up a reasonable total, but the home team knocked it off with consummate ease and 19 balls to spare. In any normal summer, it would have been an even bet that the match would be affected by rain, if not abandoned altogether.
Once, back in the 1980s I organised 4 cricket matches in different parts of the country on consecutive days. Each one was rained off without a ball being bowled.
While this amazing weather was going on, and on, and on (we did not see a drop of rain, nay rarely a bank of clouds while we were there), the oft-maligned English football team had a strong run in the World Cup, which was being played in Russia.
By the time we landed in England from France, the team was in the knock out stages, but hadn’t won such a game in 12 years. Yet, they won two in a row, won their first ever penalty shoot-out, scored more goals than the 1966 winning team, with the captain scoring a hat trick in one game and securing the Golden Boot (scoring more goals than any other player in the tournament – one that included the likes of Neymar, Ronaldo and Messi).
The refreshing part was the team was one of the youngest and least experienced in the competition, and perennial defeats to the likes of Germany, Argentina or Brazil did not eventuate. In fact those teams did not make it past the group stages, round of 16 or quarter finals respectively. Italy and the Netherlands did not even qualify. It all had a weird unusual ring to it. Can this actually be happening?
England got to the semis and the final 4. Not bad for the 12th rated team in the world, and one whose names few of us knew when we landed. When we took off a few weeks later, we could name the entire team.
Despite scoring first, they were knocked out by the latest goal they had ever conceded in a World Cup game, towards the end of extra time. Their victors were the plucky, savvy and more experienced Croatia, itself a tiny nation of 4 million. A country that did not exist that last time England made the semis 28 years ago.
Meanwhile France – with the youngest squad – went on to win the thing. A team built on strong defence and incisive counter attack, with a 19 year old superstar, not even born when France last won in 1998. A team full of immigrants and different backgrounds. Vive la France! Liberté, égalité, fraternité. If ever we needed a team like this, the time was now.
During our holiday we also stayed in Paris and northern France. Walking around a small village one evening, we could hear the whoops of joy as their national team knocked the might of Argentina 4-3.
We were exiting a west end show in London at 10pm a week or so later when French supporters took over the Piccadilly Circus chanting about that night’s semi final win over close rivals Belgium.
And so two unlikely events – a sustained heatwave and World Cup run – occurred together and book ended our visit. It made for a quite barmy – and balmy – visit.
The combination of both did something else too…
Amid all the Brexit shenanigans and political divisiveness, England seemed to pull together. You could sense the pride of the country around their young football team. 28 million people – 84% of all those watching TV – tuned in to see the semi-final.
As the knock out stages stretched on for almost two weeks, there was plenty of time to get excited and positive about what the team was doing. English flags flew in every town we visited and hung out of car windows as we passed. The good weather seemed to add to people’s smiles and refreshing positivism.
A mate of mine managed to buy a ticket to the quarter final, and took his teenage son. The game was a 5 hour flight east of Moscow, itself a 3 hour flight from London. It was quite a trek, yet he was there Saturday night and back at work Monday morning.
While driving to a work site that morning, he pulled over from the road and somehow secured semi-final tickets for the Wednesday semi. So he left for Moscow again the next day. Thousands of people like him, who’d never been to – or thought of visiting – Russia found themselves there twice in one week, on a whim and a crazy once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
As England scored goals in those knockout games, beers were thrown sky high in a swirling sea of crazed excitement at public screens across the land. Walking through towns and villages, through market stalls and pubs, there was only one topic of conversation. People were humming the perennial fan tune ‘It’s Coming Home’, and everyone was discussing the manager’s waistcoats and steely reserve, or the relative merits of Kane, Alli or Sterling.
It’s great that something as simple as a spell of great weather and some soccer victories can pull a divided nation together, yet it can, and it felt great to – by more luck than judgement – be there amidst it all. I wonder what it would take to make this can happen a little more often.