World Cup Dispatch: Part One (Behind Enemy Lines: An American In England)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Contributor Andrew Post is traveling in the U.K and Ireland for the next two weeks covering the World Cup and his trip for This week he’s in North East England before heading to Dublin, then on to Scotland. Minus any hooligan-related incidents, Andrew will be checking in with dispatches along the way. God help him.

By Andrew Post

You must understand that my journey to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in North East England was like a wildebeest’s migration. There was very little sleep and quite a lot of walking. It was a feverish, relentless drive across a continent and an ocean, in pursuit of a singular goal. I was on a pilgrimage of sorts. I was traveling to the Holy Land of football — what we uninitiated savages over on the other side of the pond know as “soccer.”

I was on a mission to watch the England vs. USA World Cup match in an English pub.

Welcome To “The Toon”

Worn down by four airports and eleven hours of flight, I stepped off the plane in Newcastle, went down the steps and entered the terminal. The sun’s warm glow took the chill out of the breeze blowing off the North Sea. The air was cool and fresh. It was if the weather itself had decided to welcome me to Northumberland.

My mates Adam and Elaine met me in the airport lobby. Adam’s eyes (one blue, one green) lit up as he saw me, and he came out with a hearty “Alreet, mate?!” the standard Geordie (the colloquial name for folk living along the northern banks of the Rivers Tyne in northeast England) greeting. Elaine’s smile was a mile wide. After almost a year since being in South Korea together, we were back together again.

Adam had phoned for a taxi, but it hadn’t shown up. The gentleman at the taxi stop, who was anxious to get home and say good night to his son before nightfall, graciously let us take his cab. We climbed in, ducked and dodged through the narrow English streets, out of central Newcastle, and into the suburb of Tynemouth to Adam’s mother’s house, a delightful neighborhood of red bricks and green lawns. I was treated to cheese sandwiches with vinegar relish, and pork-and-leek sausages (for which I would commit murder to taste again).

Not even an hour in North East England, and I was already receiving the best of Geordie hospitality.

Geordies are a hospitable bunch. Hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-living, they labor in the shipyards and factories by day and party by night. The younger folks work office or service jobs, or attend Newcastle University, one of the best in the country. (Princess Eugenie is currently pursuing an art and literature degree there.) The people in Newcastle (who, with their unique accent, lovingly call their city, “the Toon”) are known for their proud industrial history and their unusual accent, which other English find indecipherable and most Americans find desperately sexy.

But what Geordies are known most for is football. The local club, Newcastle United, has a devoted following, a great majority of whom cram the team’s stadium, St. James’s Park, for every home game. Newcastle has won titles and association cups in the past, but their record isn’t stellar. Undaunted, the loyal legion of fans persist, and the black-and-white jerseys of the “Toon army” plug up and down the pitch every game day.

So, you may imagine what a stir the 2010 FIFA World Cup might cause in a football-mad place like Newcastle.

Out And About

I was seeing red and white from the moment I got off the plane and into the next morning when my Canadian friend Jeff arrived from South Korea. English flags — St. George’s cross : plain white with a simple red cross — fluttered everywhere: from car windows, across the fronts of houses, and in the grocery stores, as far as the eye could see. Adam, Elaine, Jeff and I made a run to Morrison’s, the British grocery superstore. We grabbed the essentials for a football game party: sandwich bread, bacon, a couple of bottles of cider, and a 24-pack of Stella Artois. I must clarify that English bacon is a slab of thinly-sliced meat, like a skinny, miniature pork chop, almost completely without fat. English cider is auburn in color and does taste like apples, but it happens to be alcoholic. Both are beyond delicious.

To get in the mood, we watched the Korea vs. Greece game in Adam’s mum’s living room as we ate. It was a hectic game. As soon as South Korea’s Lee Jung-Soo scored, the Grecians began playing dirty. Nonetheless, star player Park Ji-Sung (who normally plays for Manchester United) scored a second goal, securing a shutout victory for South Korea in their first World Cup game.

Our cab rolled up and we piled in. It was time to head off into the Toon and see the sights before picking a pub and settling in for the big game at about eight.

We got out at the Quayside and viewed the bridges. The sky was mostly gray, but the Toon still took one’s breath away. The curving mass of the famous Millennium Bridge gleamed in the muted light, and the view from its center was nothing short of fantastic. Buildings old and new reared their facades on both sides of the river: the older industrial behemoths — which had been here since before the war — and the newer, more modern edifices, built to take their place. We wandered up the hill and past Grey’s Monument, built to honor Charles Earl Grey, the architect who designed most of modern Newcastle (and after whom the famous tea is named).

The broad streets of the shopping district were quite busy, especially on this most auspicious of Fridays. We went into Gregg’s, the Geordie McDonald’s, and ordered up some steak pies, big square hanks of flaky pastry with hot steak swimming in gravy in the center. At Fenwick’s Food Hall, Elaine ordered up a chicken tikka masala sandwich, demonstrating: (a) both the British predilection for Indian food, and (b) the British predilection for putting absolutely anything on a sandwich. That being said, it was delectable, the spicy curry mingling with mayonnaise, surrounding the chicken with a matrix of harmonious flavor, and soaking the bread.

The Pub And The Bet

We reached the end of Northumberland Street, hung a right past the church, and walked a few yards to Luckies, one of the dozens of pubs Adam and Elaine knew of old. Some of their old friends were hanging around waiting for the game to start. We all sat down inside, right in front of the big projector screen set up especially for the day, and drank and talked. The pub was everything I’d imagined. Diamond-clean glasses shined in the yellow incandescent lights above the dark wood bar. The chairs and the tables were all a somber brown, and the windows, though large, did little to bring light into the lofty room.

Feeling quite the accomplished world traveler, I leaned forward, rested my elbows on the scuffed, scarred wood of the table, took a swig from my beer, and joined in the conversation. Guesses flew back and forth about England’s chance for the Cup this year. Unsurprisingly, it was generally accepted that England would cream the USA in the opening game. I joined in as best I could, and did what I could to keep up. Then I was given the offer to bet on the match. I’d never done sports betting before, and though I was high on myself and the $90 I’d won in Vegas the night before flying out, the odds weren’t favorable. Nonetheless, I put a pound on the USA to win 2-1. The odds were 19/1 against.

And then . . . it was time. The pub quieted, and the massive pitch at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg flashed up on the screen. I took a nervous sip of beer. A curious disquiet had begun to grow upon me. Ever since coming to the country, ever since I’d seen the English flags draped over the landscape, ever since sitting down at the pub, I had become infected with the excitement. Suddenly the ubiquitous English devotion to “the football” had taken hold.

Though I’d never followed the USA team closely before, nor so much as watched a World Cup match, I was suddenly a die-hard fan. (My own personal investment in the future of the USA team had no small part to play.) I was hooked. I was leaning forward in my chair as the kick-off passed and the game exploded into action. Outward, I kept up a bold front. I jibed with the English folk around me (as well as a Canadian to my left). I sipped beer and sat back in my chair, nonchalant. But inside, things were pretty tense.

Three minutes in, England scored.

It was as though the heavens had cracked down the middle and collapsed. The world was coming to an end. All around the pub, roars, screams, and cheers erupted. It was bedlam, cacophony. I sank down in my chair, head in my hands.

This, I thought, must be what it’s like to be a football fan.

Thirty-six minutes later, as I was up at the bar ordering another pitcher of Foster’s, I looked up at the screen and watched as the USA scored.

My brain clamped down on the rest of my body to prevent it from leaping into the air. As the groans and curses of burly Geordie shipbuilders wafted through the air inches away, my eyebrows danced and my arms threatened to shoot skyward. I settled for giving the bartender a friendly wink with his £7.50.

The rest of the game was no less chaotic. The ball passed back and forth, back and forth, mostly on the American side, sometimes on the English. Shots were made, goals narrowly averted. Both sides neared the brink of disaster hundreds of times. My bet hung in the balance, I knew, but it had become something more than money. My fists were clenched. My heart raced. I felt like I was willing the Americans to win.

In the end, there was a curious sort of quiet that descended over Luckies as the game went into overtime. Four minutes would decide the fate of a team. Goalies blocked, strikers passed, midfielders rescued, defenders harried.

And then, suddenly, it was over.


A draw.

I lost a pound, but I kept my life. And both teams kept their dignity.

And thus was my pilgrimage was vindicated.


Coming Next In Part Two: Newcastle beyond the pub.

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