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COMMENTARY

English Go on Ledge Together

July 01, 2006|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON — If you're an American like me, you might notice that our country sometimes seems to lack a certain, I don't know, cohesion.

Maybe it's just too big. Maybe it's just filled with little nations, like West and East or red and blue or USC and UCLA.

Maybe it just has too much talkradio.

It's truly foreign, then, to live in England on this particular Saturday, with some 60% of the English population primed to watch the England-Portugal World Cup quarterfinal, with the audience threatening to match the biggest of the last 10 years, the 32.1 million who saw the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The Super Bowl would qualify as similarly compelling, except a good chunk of its TV viewers either watch for the commercials or watch by inertia while gossiping near the three-cheeses dip. To get this kind of galvanization in America, you pretty much need a case where an Olympic figure skater participates in a plan to whack the knee of a rival Olympic figure skater, whereupon they skate against each other in, say, Norway.

It takes extreme circumstances.

In England this afternoon, retailers expect their sales to plummet. Grocery stores expect a boon, but only for a time. Pubs expect to rule the earth, as well they should. Wimbledon, a major sporting event, especially here, expects to draw less than 5% of the World Cup audience even though the hopeful Scotsman Andy Murray will play Andy Roddick.

The people who don't like "football," those drowned-out sorts, can run errands minus the crowds.

In 1966, when England had TV sets in only 15 million households, some 32.3 million people watched the World Cup final between England and Germany. On Friday, all working London seemed truant in pubs even for Germany-Argentina, a match during which England typically roots for neither.

It's hard to swing the mood of a big country, but this very afternoon a smallish country could swerve into sudden optimism.

Come a hot day's sundown, we might even have Euro 2006 rather than a World Cup, and England might occupy a final four alongside Germany, Italy and France. For all England's honorable pessimism about the unsightliness of its national team in four World Cup matches thus far, it could yet fit into the dysfunctional semis.

There's Germany, supposedly hamstrung by an unusually feeble roster and a coach who controversially would rather live in the 714 area code than in, say, Germany. There's Italy, supposedly hamstrung by one of the biggest soccer scandals in history. There could be France, supposedly clueless and feckless and decrepit according to its own citizens-with-laptops.

And there might be England, whose game has been ghastly enough that defender Rio Ferdinand, asked by the BBC if the media criticism had been justified, replied, well, mostly, yes. (What a fabulous country.) The performance has so lacked in offense that even the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, pooh-poohed England for playing only one striker, "not what you expect from a title contender."

When Blatter said that, many English felt just resentment. If England wins today and Brazil beats France, many English will still feel pessimism. If England and France win, many will feel the other half of the large English brain: hyped hope.

Whatever happens, the decisive majority of 50 million people will feel something.

To an American, that's an experience.

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