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Jun 24, 2014

England exit as fans stay defiant

2014 FIFA World Cup Group D: Costa Rica 0-0 England

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them

-- Oliver Wendell Holmes, "The Voiceless"

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- What would you do at your country's funeral? What would you do if you'd paid -- handsomely -- for the ticket yourself?

Mourn?

Fume?

Meditate on this spinning ball of dirt we call planet Earth?

"We're having a party," a 20-something Englishman named Rich, from Wolverhampton, declared to me. "We're accepting this."

It was 10:34 in the morning, and we were all standing outside the entrance to the Estadio Mineirão. The final match of the nation that had exported futebol to Brazil 120 years earlier was now less than three hours away. The opponent: CONCACAF pauper-turned-king Costa Rica. Rich, clutching a sweaty can of Brahma beer in his left hand, was dressed as a medieval knight, complete with a faux-chain mail hood, faux-chain mail pants, red cape, black boots and a white tunic bearing St. George's Cross. Everything he wore was already stained.

As were the clothes of his half-dozen, identically attired mates behind him.

As were those of the half-dozen other guys in jester's caps who'd joined said party, the whole group approximating an increasingly hammered King Arthur's Court.

They all began to sing:

ENG-LAND, WE ARE GOING HOME
ENG-LAND, WE ARE GOING HOME

And the group grew larger:

WE'RE S---, AND WE KNOW WE ARE
WE'RE S---, AND WE KNOW WE ARE

And the group grew larger:

BEERS UP, FOR THE ENGLAND BOYS
BEERS UP, FOR THE ENGLAND BOYS

And the group grew larger:

WE'RE GOING TO WIN F--- ALL
WE'RE GOING TO WIN F--- ALL

England fans were determined to enjoy themselves in the Belo Horizonte sunshine.

By now, a procession of British and Brazilian parents alike had been asking the knights and jesters, Brahmas in both hands, to pose with their children midtune. They gleefully obliged. Even Costa Rican fans had joined in -- call it sing-song diplomacy -- to pose and take photos, arm in arm.

And the foregoing was only a fraction of the lyrics. There were also stanzas about Luis Suarez's teeth being offside; putting Diego Maradona somewhere impolite; and Steven Gerrard, Franny Jeffers and Gary Cahill. At one point, Rich and his friends sat down, stood back up, then took their shoes off and started waving them in the air. It became the kind of overwhelming scene that made me wonder why I'd ever thought this would be funereal in the first place.

- Mitten: Three Points -- Costa Rica vs. England
- Jolly: Time for Wilshere to step up

"We sing after we win," Rich reminded me. "And we sing after we lose."

Yes, after England had been eliminated from this tournament by Uruguay last Thursday, there had been hand-wringing befitting the royal cradle of soccer, the home of the incomparable, multibillion-dollar Premier League. Gerrard, the captain, told reporters, "I'm hurting. I'm broken." Retired striker Ian Wright wrote an emotional column for The Sun that began, "The next young player who says he does not want to play for England should be ordered to ring the parents of a soldier who has died serving his country in Afghanistan and tell them his reasons." The Daily Mail wrote an entire article about how Football Association chairman Greg Dyke had been seen reading the book "A Death in Brazil" during a training session here yesterday. And perusing the Instagram account of otherwise dance-happy forward Daniel Sturridge, I found a video he'd posted where he just caresses a coconut drink by the beach and frowns.

Costa RicaCosta Rica
EnglandEngland
0
0
FT
Match 40
Game Details

But this game -- a 0-0 draw with a tremendous Costa Rica side that had the least to play for of anyone yet -- was not miserable at all, not according to decibel level. Inside, there would be even more singing knights and jesters. Thousands of Riches from Wolverhampton. They cheered, hard, when Gerrard came off the bench. They cheered, hard, when Wayne Rooney did the same.

The utter meaninglessness of the enterprise had been replaced by a joy that only a distinctly English appreciation of nihilism, of absurdity, can provide. "We decided to bring the effort," a white-and-red-suited Gary from Manchester told me. "Even if our team didn't."

This is not to say that nobody blamed manager Roy Hodgson, obviously. Everyone I talked to did that. A lot. In fact, he was the only person in the pregame lineup announcements -- for either side -- who got booed.

Still, the very first thing Hodgson knew to do, when he sat down for England's final news conference of this World Cup, was thank those very antagonists.

"The most encouraging thing of all," Hodgson said, "was the reaction of the fans. And we are so sad and disappointed for them."

England's players and coaching staff salute their supporters following Tuesday's 0-0 draw vs. Costa Rica.

But the attendants of this would-be funeral were not sad and disappointed for themselves. After the whistle blew, this unfortunate England team went and stood before their constituents, who fully occupied the southeast corner of the Estadio Mineirão, and who applauded, longer and more sincerely than anyone could remember. And even after Gerrard and Rooney and Sturridge walked away, into the tunnel, out of the tournament, off into hibernation for another four years, the fans refused to join them, singing the whole while, as a worried military police force looked on.

Fifteen minutes later, an enormous St. George's Cross was unfurled. Twenty minutes later, riot police arrived in full gear -- helmets and shields -- to monitor them. Thirty minutes later, the fans were bouncing and spinning their shirts in the air as though it was the first half against Italy. The rest of the stadium had long been empty; workers had already begun to pick through the field for debris.

At last, almost an hour after England had been formally kicked out of the World Cup, the involuntary quiet settled in.

I'd watched the throng of policemen and arena attendants finally succeed in creating a perimeter around all those knights and jesters and constrict it, foot by foot, minute by minute, forcing this defiant, delirious celebration -- by then totally indecipherable -- out of sight, into the tunnel.

As gracious as Hodgson was, it was hard to see that and think that this team was the main reason that those fans were singing.

Honestly, it was hard to think that it ever was.