The World Cup is a savage exercise in loyalty and restraint. Weathered fans know to guard their hearts, but by the semifinals, patriotism becomes powerful enough to make even the most pessimistic entertain an insidious “Maybe?”
But as England and Belgium were unkindly reminded, after wrenching semifinal losses, the tournament makes fools of the faithful.
England’s fans are telling themselves now that they should have known better. But on Wednesday, in the smothering heat of the Queen Vic on H Street NE, they’d been swept up in the possibility. As their team took the field against Croatia, an oasis of Englishmen in a relatively American crowd stuck together, repeating a line from their unofficial anthem: “Football’s coming home.”
They sported old jerseys, hoping to bring glory to shirts that had endured decades of defeat. An older man shared memories of England’s last World Cup win in 1966, when he was only 11. Another fan, David Sergeant, rolled up his sleeve to show off the Three Lions tattoo on his shoulder.
“That way I don’t always have to wear my jersey,” he told his neighbors. He passed around his England scarf to strangers, asking them to kiss it for luck, hoping maybe, this time, heartbreak was not inevitable.
A chance at redemption came in the form of an English goal, less than 10 minutes into the match. The fans of England briefly turned the bar into a mosh pit, slamming into each other and throwing their glasses, baptizing the crowd with beer. They shouted their nation’s name in thick accents: ING-GER-LUND, ING-GER-LUND, ING-GER-LUND. In hushed voices, they admitted that they truly believed this could be their year.
“This means more to me than anything in my life,” Sergeant declared at halftime. “If we win, I’m camping outside this pub so I can be the first one in for the final.”
They were gifted nearly 70 minutes of blissful possibility, before a Croatian equalizer erased the confidence and left a familiar dread in its place. They tried to play it off — “It’ll be better, now it’s a real game” — and to rationalize — “The Croatians are knackered, they’ll never last.” The Americans tried to empathize, mirroring the markers of English outrage. A few Brits spent a minute teaching an American man how to say, “Wanker!” with authority. They clung on through extra time, until they were condemned by another Croatian goal. Of course, it had happened again. Another humiliation.
On Tuesday, as ill-fated Belgium prepared to face France, silence was outlawed. In the madness at B Too, a Belgian restaurant in Logan Circle, owner Bart Vandaele led chants like a mad conductor: a rousing, off-key rendition of the national anthem, singsong versions of the star players’ names, the ubiquitous “Olé, Olé, Olé.”
The Belgian fans boisterously spoke of forsaking their French ties. They joked about reclaiming french fries (they’re actually a Belgian invention, just one of Belgium’s oft-forgotten contributions.)
“I have good and bad news,” Vandaele declared from the center of the scrum. “We no longer serve French wine! Only Belgian beer!”
The bulletproof Belgian pride prevailed over the scoreless first half. But shortly after halftime, France scored off a corner kick, and the room was stunned into silence. Then the unraveling commenced.
Vandaele tried to keep the flame alive, helping his servers pass out metal kitchenware for fans to clank and clash. He encouraged people to pound on walls, ceilings and tables. But as the clock ticked down, the crowd grew feral. They leaped to their feet at every whistle, speaking almost exclusively in curses. A few glasses fell to the floor and shattered, casualties of ire.
An uncountable number of hexes and threats were hurled at the referee. The crowd shouted itself red-faced and breathless. The boos were deafening.
When the match expired, there was stillness. The French players rushed the field in revelry; for a few moments, the Belgian fans were frozen. But the quiet was shattered by a few roars of fury. A teenage boy flailed and punched a wall.
As the loss sunk in, they tried to meet it with dignity, but it’s hard to take pride in disgrace. There is little glory in coming so close.