World Cup success (so far) revives England's dream of winning soccer's ultimate prize

Goal machine and captain Harry Kane, along with promising young stars like Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, have given England fans an optimism not felt in years.

Country has only won World Cup once - in 1966

The Kirby housing estate in south-east London has been turned into a shrine for England's soccer team. (Oscar Beardmore-Gray/CBC)

A lifelong England fan, Chris Dowse lifted his replica World Cup triumphantly in the air as he proudly showed off the Kirby housing estate, where he lives.

It has been transformed into a shrine for the country's soccer team. More than 300 England flags have been draped across every balcony in all four corners of the 119-apartment estate in south-east London.

"If we win it, I expect to see the England team 'round here to have a party with us," said Dowse, who mobilized the community to participate in the patriotic display.

Despite being as soccer-mad as Canadians are hockey-mad, long-suffering England fans are not used to parties.

The country's single World Cup triumph in 1966 has been followed by more than 50 years of failure and disappointment.

The national team has not won a knockout game in 12 years. At the 2016 European Championships, they crashed out to Iceland, a country with a population half the size of Hamilton, Ont.

Yet for many observers, something feels different this year.

"We believe in miracles, you sixy things," read the front page of the UK's biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun, following England's record-breaking 6-1 victory over Panama last weekend.

England flags are draped all around the Kirby estate. (Oscar Beardmore-Gray/CBC)

Goal machine and captain Harry Kane, along with promising young stars like Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, have given fans an optimism not felt in years.

"You're starting to see people who wouldn't necessarily believe in England doing well starting to think, hang on, we've got a little chance here to do a little better than we normally do," Dowse said.

A rush for tickets

Excitement for the young side has been reflected in television audiences. An average of 18.3 million viewers in Britain tuned in to England's 2-1 stoppage-time win over Tunisia on June 18. By contrast, the Royal Wedding in May only attracted an average of 13.1 million.

Furthermore, England's crushing defeat of Panama was enjoyed by 82.9 per cent of all TV viewers — equivalent to the audience share during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

English striker Harry Kane has been one of the bright spots at this year's World Cup. (Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

Even Prime Minister Theresa May is getting into the spirit, announcing that the St. George's cross will be flown above her residence at 10 Downing Street when England play.

The team's success has led to a rush for tickets for its upcoming game against Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday. An extra 2,000 Fan IDs, which act as visas, have been ordered in the U.K. since the start of the tournament, according to Russian authorities.

"The warm welcome that England fans have found in Russia, as well as England's wins to date, will undoubtedly have contributed to the rise in bookings," said the Association of British Travel Agents.

Rachel Grimbledy is one of many now heading out to Russia. The 25-year-old, who works in a call centre in the north of England, is hoping that her first-ever World Cup experience will be a longer stay than she expects.

"I've half-warned my team leader, sort of saying, 'Please don't sack me if I stay [in Russia].' I'm not going to go to many England World Cup finals — if we get there — but there are plenty of jobs," Grimbledy said, explaining her rationale. "So it's all about my priorities."

Despite having the most inexperienced team in the competition — in terms of the players' ages and previous international appearances — Grimbledy is confident England can finally go all the way.

"Yes, definitely [they can] this time. At the moment, everyone is quite positive and actually has the belief it will come home, rather than the usual not-real belief," she said.

While Grimbledy will be among thousands of other England fans in Russia, the country's strict visa policy has prevented many fans who do not have existing tickets from travelling to Russia.
Rachel Grimbledy is one of many England fans heading to Russia to cheer their team on. (Submitted by Rachel Grimbledy)

That has not stopped jubilant scenes and wild celebrations caught on camera in pubs, bars and parks across England.

Fans watching the team's final group game against Belgium on a giant screen in west London were optimistic — despite a 1-0 defeat. Already assured of qualification for the round of 16, England fielded a weaker team and now have a more favourable route to the final.

"Things like Germany going out [of the tournament] definitely gives us more belief," said fan Oscar Mensah. "If England win the World Cup, I'm going to start a petition for a national holiday!"

14 million pints of beer

Gareth Kerr, managing director of Bar Kick, one of the most popular soccer pubs in London, said England's success is great for business.

"All the England games have been mad busy. Atmosphere-wise, it's the bees' knees. It's been electric. If England progress, it's going to be sensational," he said.

World Cup fever is attracting over 400 fans to Bar Kick per game and, despite reports of a shortage of beer across the U.K, Kerr is selling in excess of 300 crates of beer a week. The added bonus of a summer heatwave makes for a perfect combination.

"It's hot as hell at the moment and we're packed, so it's all good," Kerr said.

The British Beer and Pub Association expects England fans to drink an extra 14 million pints during the group stage. A further 10 million are predicted to be downed during the last 16 games, according to the association.
Gareth Kerr, owner of London sports pub Bar Kick, said England's success is great for business. (Oscar Beardmore-Gray/CBC)

Fans expected to travel

Over in Russia, excitement for "The Three Lions" is also building.

Garford Beck, manager of England Fans F.C., is following the team in Russia and has noticed more England fans present now than for the first two games. He expects more people to make the expensive journey if England should progress to the next rounds.

Beck insisted hooliganism fears and Anglo-Russian political tension that have dominated headlines for months have not been an issue. During the 2016 Euros in France, English and Russian fans clashed in the streets of Marseille.

Months of political tension earlier this year in the wake of a nerve gas attack in Salisbury had only increased fears of anti-English sentiment from authorities in Russia.

"Those who were predicting Armageddon were way off the mark. The security has been tight, but it's worked. It's been friendly, but it's been thorough," Beck said.

Beck was also keen to emphasize the kindness of locals and the friendliness of policemen, who even gave him and fellow fans a ride to their Kaliningrad hotel.  

"We were just following the map and I approached a police car and put my head in and said, 'Could you tell us how to get there?' and cheekily asked, 'Is there any chance of a lift?' Beck said. "And they did — they brought us all the way to our door!"

But can England really win the World Cup?

"There is a feeling that this squad is together and everyone is just going along with it," said Beck. "Anything's possible!"


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