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Jolly Old England Feeds Off Victory

June 08, 2002|JANET STOBART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — It was billed as "London's longest lunch hour," and dessert Friday was sweet indeed--a 1-0 victory over Argentina, England's old nemesis, in the World Cup.

The country's work force had put down its tools to watch the game in Sapporo, Japan, at 12:30 p.m. local time.

Many companies, knowing that their staffs would be largely unproductive anyway, set up televisions or reserved rooms in pubs and restaurants. Executives mixed with office workers to watch the game and carry on with post-victory celebrations--expected to last most of the weekend.

England's last World Cup encounter with Argentina, in 1998, ended in defeat--after David Beckham, this year's captain, had been sent off for a foul. The long-standing rivalry between the countries and Argentina's being favored in some quarters to win the tournament this year meant Friday's game was a nail-biting experience for England's fans.

City centers such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle came to a halt. Shopping malls, supermarkets and city councils put up huge screens in stores, central squares and streets, where people gathered to watch and cheer as Beckham scored the avenging, winning goal on a penalty kick at the 44th minute.

During the game, the roads of central London--normally jammed on Friday afternoon--were "ridiculously quiet," according to the Automobile Assn.'s "Roadwatch" radio broadcasts.

Train services were heavily reduced, with notices blaming "driver shortages" and "disruption due to short-term sickness" fooling nobody.

Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt had advised firms to give employees the day off.

"I am glad that so many firms have taken a sensible view," she said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly had cleared his calendar to watch the game, and younger members of the royal family were said to be glued to the TV.

Analysts estimated that about a quarter of the country's work force took the day off, and one economic research group forecast a shortfall in productivity of about 750 million pounds, more than $1 billion.

There were other winners and losers. Bookmakers, for instance, had to pay bettors who'd backed England, but they were philosophical about it.

"I'm happy to say it was a bad day for the bookies," Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for the William Hill bookmakers, said on Sky TV. "Our offices came to a halt during the game, and there were big cheers--even though you might have thought we were shooting ourselves in the wallet."

After the game, those who weren't already inside a pub or restaurant joined those who were shouting, "England! England! England!" and, "Football's coming home!"

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