My Pop Life #211 : Three Lions – The Lightning Seeds

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Three Lions   –   The Lightning Seeds

Jules Rimet’s still gleaming…

Brooklyn, July 3rd 2018.  The Russia World Cup : When Eric Dier stepped up and sank the penalty winner in the last-16 game against Colombia it was the first time England had won a penalty shoot-out in an international football competition, ever.  My wife wept for ten minutes.  I was on the internet booking a flight to Samara.  As a message, it really couldn’t have been any clearer, so, wanting to make the world a better place I took a look at myself and made that change.  The man in the mirror was booked on a flight to Samara, Russia via Istanbul on Turkish Air.    Then I realised that I needed a visa and it was 7pm and the next day was July 4th when everything was closed.  Fluff.

Further internet search revealed that visa regulations would be suspended for the duration of the tournament, and that all I’d need is a Fan ID.  Passport photos from Walmart, ticket number for the loophole and I was all set.

At midnight the next day I was on the plane.  9 hours later I was in Istanbul.  Got some rubles. Flew to Samara and landed at 1am.  The following day I hooked up with The Characters: Billy The Bee, Puns, Andy Dubai Bee, Phil, Obi and Martin in the Balkan Grill near the Fifa Fan Park, downtown Samara.

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My Russian friends for the afternoon

Earlier I’d walked along the beautiful riverbank walk along the mighty Volga with a father & son who’d helped me navigate the all-Cyrillic alphabet subway system and then visited Stalin’s bunker where I learned that Samara had briefly become the capital of Russia when Hitler was only 20 kilometres from Moscow in 1942.

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Marx, Engels & Lenin in Stalin’s bunker, Samara

The city was warm and friendly, colourful and mixed – the mosques and the Orthodox churches share the same kind of architecture, golden domes and spires.

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Samara

People were happy to see foreign fans – Colombians, Mexicans, Swedes and English mingling with locals – they were happy and excited to be hosting the tournament, indeed when I met The Characters I was told that one of our number Obi had been asked for a photo by hundreds of Russians since he’d been here.  A far cry from the racism we’d been led to expect from the Marseilles 2016 incidents involving Russian hooligans attacking England fans, and Champions League games in Russia with racist chanting.  This was all swept underneath the FIFA carpet and normal human people replaced the Russian bogeymen  – helpful, curious hosts wielding their Google Translate Apps amidst plenty of sign language.

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Back in the Balkan Grill we watched France take Uruguay down and advance to the semi finals, then walked up to the giant fanpark to see Belgium v Brazil.  It was set in a huge town square full of old-school statues and grand buildings – I later learned that Samara has the largest square in Europe.  We stood in it drinking beer watching the big screen and listening to Russian techno music and the enthusiasm of the DJs and dancers.  A few English fans scattered here and there, but the vast majority of Fans are Russian.  Belgium tear Brazil apart in the first half – a footballing masterclass with Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku all finding acres of space across the Brazilian defence.  Half-time : 0-2 to Belgium.  We reconvene and drink further pints.  Billy and I wander back out into the crowd.  In the second half young Russians came up to chat to us as they realised that we were English.  Russians watches the Premiership on TV & the fans favour us as their second favourites for the tournament – the following day we would play Sweden and Russia would face Croatia.  Meanwhile the Spurs defence Alderweireld & Vertonghen alongside the mighty Vincent Kompany kept Neymar & Coutinho quiet and gave away zero free kicks around the box.  Brazil scored a goal but couldn’t manage a second. Game over.  Brazil were out, along with Argentina & Germany, what a thrilling World Cup !!

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We walked slowly out – like herding cats as ever – and found the Gareth Southgate lookalike outside Shannon’s the inevitable Irish bar.  Billy interviewed him.  Minutes later we were in the groovy nightclub Art & Fact with a few dozen Swedish fans and a bunch of happy locals.  The Swedes hadn’t been polishing their manners much : “England are shit.  We will beat you.”  It was possible – they’d had a decent tournament.  At 3am I developed a thumping headache and retired to Yandex the local Russian taxi App and my hotel.

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On the day of the game we met on the river at a bar/restaurant called Beluga.  It was sparsely populated with England fans from Bristol Rovers, Sunderland, Notts Forest.  The crew gathered slowly.  Tickets distributed.  A kind of rhythm was established where Andy and I got antsy first and wanted to leave, with others more or less gathering at half-speed to follow.  Billy was usually last with his head buried in his phone, local simcard, media hack, blogger and face of the fans 2018 thanks to visibility and the BBC filming his reaction to the penalty shootout, and using it as part of their introduction to the game.  The shootout victory had put the feel-good back into England.  We could go all the way – couldn’t we?  Memes started to appear “I’ve got a secret….”  and it became clear that this song was back once again.  Over in Samara we didn’t like to say it, to voice it, but it had been in our secret heart for months : this was a decent team with a good manager.  No egos.  No wankers.  Only a couple of weak players, all in all a prospect who might not let us down, again.

My birthday 2010 we watched England 0 Algeria 0 in Greenpoint, Cape Town, one of the worst footballing experiences I have ever had.  We’d gone out in the group stages in Brazil and lost to Iceland in Euro 2016.  The only way was up.  But to move from that to the hubris of ‘it’s coming home‘ after one penalty shoot-out victory?  We boarded the tram clutching our bottles of water.  Billy, Obi, Andy, Puns and I.  Phil had gone early, Martin we didn’t know.  The tram slowly filled up as it passed through the pleasant city toward the highest point where the new stadium stood.  We walked with the thousands of others, face painted, Brazil tops, Russians mainly.  A local TV crew stopped us and asked for a song, so I filmed the lads singing  “Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on” and “drinking all yer vodka”  the two most popular songs out here.  There were pockets of fans in England colours, we’d been told just under 3,000 in all in a crowd of 45,000.  Then inevitably Obi got asked for his 462nd photo of the World Cup by a Russian family.

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Obi aka Photos

That long walk from the taxi/tram/train/bus to the stadium is a feature of World Cups – and this was my 7th in a sequence that stretched back to Los Angeles 1994, when we lived in that fair city and had scored tickets to every game at the Rose Bowl Pasadena, including the Final.  Hooked, we’d travelled to France in 1998 and witnessed Marseilles being trashed by England fans fighting local North Africans, then met Billy on a train to Toulouse.  I’d flown to Japan in 2002 for the quarter-final game v Brazil with Julian Benkel and we’d gone on to Seoul in Korea for the semi final game between South Korea and Germany.  In 2006 Jenny and I drove from Copenhagen to Sweden to visit our friend Amanda Ooms in Sköne before travelling through Germany for a beautiful tournament and another penalty shoot-out defeat against Portugal.  2010 was the magical South Africa World Cup with it’s highlight quarter-final game in Soweto between Ghana and Uruguay (Suarez handball) after England had capitulated to Germany in Bloemfontain.  Then Brazil 2014 and Rio, Manaus, another group-stage exit for England.  Jenny had sworn not to come to Russia (see My Pop Life #109) and I thought I’d missed it but now I felt full, emotional, in the place I was supposed to be, 700 miles north of Kazahkstan on the mighty Volga, watching a quarter-final game between England and Sweden.

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My seat was in the gods high above the SW corner flag, strangely close to the two Sunderland fans from earlier.  Russians were supporting Sweden, Russians were supporting England but as we found out later, Russians were supporting Russia. I could make out the England players warming up far below me.  Then they left the field and the build-up started.  I was completely ambushed when they played Three Lions through the tannoy system, with a karaoke highlighted lyric line.

…everyone seems to know the score, 
They’ve seen it all before
They just know, they’re so sure
That England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away
But I know they can play,
‘Cause I remember…

And bugger me if I didn’t have a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as the emotion swelled inside me, completely sidelining any defensive cynicism, any secret irritation for the constant repetition and squashing down of hope to protect the inevitable disappointment, the emotion flooding through me and drowning the irony, we just want to see these players turn up and believe in themselves like they do every week for their clubs.  Sometimes – Algeria, Iceland – it feels as if the very shirt is infected with doubt, a curse is on the land and all who wear it.  But I know we can play…

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We started slowly but were in possession immediately and often and all the corners were right below me.  After 15 minutes Harry Maguire thumped home a magnificent header and we were 1-0 up and cruising.  Sterling could and should have scored a couple more before the whistle blew for half-time.  I made my way down, down, down and around to the far side of the beautiful stadium where the England fans were gathered.  No one asked me for a ticket at any point.  Little pockets of fans were smoking in corners beneath the stands with stewards ignoring the rules.  When I’d got behind the goal at the other end I walked in, and the 2nd half had already started.  It was easy to spot Billy, standing on his seat, so I squeezed over, joined Obi and Puns and Andy then met two youngers Cass and Stu and we sang, we sang, we sang for the entire second half.   To the tune of Earth Wind & Fire’s September :

Oh wee Oh, England Fans in Russia Oh wee Oh, drinking all yer vodka  Oh wee Oh, England’s going all the way……………

Then a corner.  It goes out to Lingard. He crosses to the far post, right in front of us and DELE ALLI BULLETS A HEADER INTO THE BACK OF THE NET !!!  The place erupts in noise, arms waving and beer spraying everywhere, screaming, jumping, celebrating, hugging, drenched in beer, happy, delirious.  What a moment.  I was soaked in beer and my glasses were spattered with lager but we were 2-0 up and heading for the giddy heights of a semi final.  The singing intensified now, glorified, the other song became the favourite :

                   …On our way, we’re on our way, to The Moscow we’re on our way                             how do we get there I don’t know, how do we get there I don’t care – all I know is England’s on the way….

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Puns, me, Billy Grant, Andy 

Something so wonderfully right about singing The Moscow and literally being on our way there for a semi final that we sang it over and over and over again, long after the final whistle and the England players had walked over and at least three of them had danced to our chanting, hands waving – Lingard, Walker and Stones I believe – and Gareth – now inevitably Sir Gareth Southgate had come and punched the air with lion-esque passion at us.  And there it was again

It’s coming home it’s coming home it’s coming Football’s coming home…

We sang it.  The sacred phrase It’s Coming Home which encapsulates so much disappointment and hope.

Where has it been ?  Brazil mainly.  Germany.  Argentina.  Spain.  France.

The highly charged emotive word “home” referring to the modern game’s development in the British Isles in the late 19th Century before becoming the world’s favourite game.  The reason why footballers and football fans around the world HATE the song so much and hate to hear The England singing it.  The utter hubris.  The entitlement.  And they might be right.  Baddiel certainly went to Oxford.

It was written for Euro ’96 which was held in England, so perhaps we all read too much into it.  But it was been dusted down & polished up and sent out to bolster our hopes each time there is a tournament – every two years.  I had always treated it in an ironic way, like a piece of kitsch.  But hearing it in the context of a competitive England match it becomes something else entirely.  It becomes an expression of longing and hope.  A real one.

We left the ground in a daze, taking pictures of the moment, recounting the goals and saves, wondering who we would play in the semi final.  The tram was crowded and unreal.  Some 3000 England fans had been inside the ground and sang their hearts out and now we were trying to get back to the fanpark to see Russia play Croatia.  It took forever, we started a countdown to kickoff and eventually jumped off, then walked ten blocks and jumped back on – or at least four of us did, Billy, me Cass & Stu.  It became apparent that the rumours of overcrowding at the fanpark were true (in the largest square in Europe) as we saw thousands of fans gathered around the corner entrance being turned away.  We stayed on the tram and it swung north.  After a while we jumped off and found a pizza restaurant with a screen on the pavement, surrounded by scores of people.  We went inside.  It was heaving but there was a queue for the bar. Facing the screen.  Then Russia scored.

The noise was incredible.  Billy started filming but there was real alarm on his face as the chant Ross-i-ya arose from the faces around us, deep, gutteral, primal.  Or maybe I imagined it.  We edged nearer to the bar & beer.  The atmosphere was electric and intense.  Then Croatia scored.  Silence.

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We got to the bar.  Sorry there’s no more beer.  Gin ?  Vodka ?  No No more alcohol.  Like a bad dream where you are stuck somewhere hostile but no one is admitting it.  Four cokes please I said.  We only have three : Sprite?  Fine.  Three cokes and a Sprite and back on the tram heading south again.  Andy had gone back to his hotel so we headed there back past the fanpark, still mobbed outside but now it was halftime. At the top of the Slavy Square stands the Glory Monument dedicated to the Kuybyshev aircraft manufacturers of WW2 who made over 30,000 planes.  We descended to the hotel amid the surreal excitement of a city in thrall to a football match happening hundreds of miles away.

In the Volga hotel we were rejoined by Andy, who had my cases in his room, Puns and Obi and we watched the second half with a large number of Russians, a few English, the odd Swede, some Kazahks, three Bolivians and a handful of Brazilians.  They also ran out of beer as we arrived at the bar.  Vodka and orange then.  Vodka and coke.  And finally these mythical imaginary drinks arrived.

Extra time.  Croatia scored again.  Modric was playing a blinder.  I turned to Billy at one point and said – there is a giant Croatian pin heading towards a big Russian balloon.  Surely it was all over.  But no – Russia equalised with minutes left and we were down to penalties.  I had a plane to catch at 3.45am going to Moscow – I’d got the last seat – but I couldn’t leave yet.  Russia had beaten the Spanish on penalties thanks to their goalkeeper Akinfeev but this time they couldn’t go the extra mile to the huge immediate palpable disappointment of a vast nation. Croatia were through to the semi final and a match with England.  I grabbed my cases and said my goodbyes – we’d all meet again in Moscow but character’s planes weren’t until Tuesday in the main. Outside it was drunken and mobbed, taxis everywhere but I had my Yandex App.  It didn’t work.  No wifi suddenly after three days.  I stood on the street corner and watched the Russians high on drink and disappointment crossing the road, singing, smoking, laughing in some cases.  They appeared to be taking it well.  I saw a cab across the road and dragging my cases, walked over.  “Airport?”  I wondered.  She nodded and off we went.

The airport was an hour away.  My driver had a translation App and switched it on immediately.  We started talking – had an entire conversation in fact.   She told me she had a man in Italy and she wanted to move there but that her friend had warned her about Italian men and now she wasn’t so sure.  She told me her daughter was her sole reason for living after she called in and they’d chatted.  She told me she wanted to leave Russia.  I became a counsellor for an hour.  Keep your goals in mind, focus and keep your self-esteem high. You can have whatever you want if you keep it front focus.  And so on and so forth.  Then she said – written on the App in front of me :

I am terrified of the loneliness

I became quite moved and we were silent for the last ten minutes.

There were a handful of drunk England fans in Samara airport among the vast majority of media workers and like loud people everywhere they changed the environment for everyone.  Even on the plane they continued to repeat the same few simple melodies and words I have already outlined above, like some broken clockwork toys before I fell asleep.  We all got about an hours sleep before we landed in Domodedovo Airport near Moscow at 4.30am.  We staggered onto buses and commenced a 15-minute drive to the terminal while I realised that I had left my phone on the plane.  Taken to Lost Property I sat there for half an excruciating hour before the stewardesses came in with it in their hand.  Exhausted relief.  Got a bus through the green field and forests south of Moscow to the Metro then a Metro to Tverskaya.  When I got up the escalator to the subway exit there was a monsoon outside.

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A monsoon.  I waited.  The address of the hotel was 14 Tverskaya and I was steps from 18.  When I finally took those steps though some 25 minutes later I was nowhere near 14.  When I got there I was wet – and the number 14 just told you which chunk of the block we were on, then it was building 4.  No one could tell me where it was.  Round the corner.  Into the alley.  Ask at the flower shop.  He didn’t know. He asked his mate.  He didn’t know.  There was no internet on my phone and I was getting very wet now.   I also had sharp pain every time I put down my right foot and realised that I must have blisters from walking around Samara for hours the previous day.  I squeezed my foot to protect it and limped my way into an apartment building in Number four thinking there might be a secret hotel on the top floor but no go.  At least it wasn’t wet in there.  My England jacket was drenched so I changed into the Burberry raincoat.  I stood under an archway for about half an hour watching the torrential downpour before realising that I had to move, somewhere, anywhere.  I walked back around to the cafe which was opposite the grand old grocery which I later learned was the famous Eliseyev Food Hall:

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A cleaner told us the cafe was closed until 10am – it was 8.30 by now – and the two chaps who had come inside looking for a cafe with me told me in broken Russki English that MacDonalds had wifi.  Back down the underpass, out the other end and into a vast Micky D with breakfast roll egg Macfuckface and fries with black coffee AND WIFI.   Connection.  Suddenly all the messages and email come rolling in.  Loads of WhatsApp messages from EnglandOnTourRussia2018 and plenty involving last night’s party in Samara which developed into dawn selfies with girls and loads of photos of people with fingers to their lips.  I later worked out that this referred to people resisting the urge to say

It’s Coming Home

under any circumstances and to keep radio silence as far as winning the world cup was concerned…Meanwhile back in England that’s all anyone could say and non-football fans were in secret righteous fury vowing to kill the next person who said it.  When drunk of course, people say it louder and more often.  Was it to become our secret undoing ?  I couldn’t get the stupid phrase out of my head.  Or the Three Lions On A Shirt bit.  It was taking over my brain.  Worst of all I was re-writing it to stop it being repetitive brain injury.  Sealions on a Skirt.  Felines on a Flirt.  Or that evergreen Scaffold cover in praise of laundry Three Shirts On A Line.

Of course I wanted England to win the World Cup and now and again in my secret heart I thought they could.  But my undrunk morning self knew that we were underdogs, that we didn’t have a midfielder like Luka Modric who could run a game.  Nevertheless the hope was planted by this carefully constructed and rather sweet song from 1996.  The music was written by a Liverpool musician Ian Broudie and the lyrics by a Birmingham comedian Frank Skinner with a London comedian David Baddiel and recorded by Broudie’s band The Lightning Seeds.   It contains famous pieces of commentary describing the England team as disappointing.  It is indeed a song about failure, about how the team never quite rise to the occasion, although sometimes, it feels as if they might. There are moments.  Lineker’s goal against Germany in Rome 1990.  Gazza.  And of course Bobby Moore and 1966 at Wembley.   The England squad of 1996 appear in the video and sing the chorus.  It has become the England supporters’ anthem and rises into the charts during most football tournaments, the torture of watching England playing football once again like a recurring nightmare that will never go away. It’s the hope that kills you.  Like itching powder I couldn’t soothe the damn tune out of my ears.  But Southgate has made all the difference hasn’t he ?? And here we are.

  A World Cup semi-final in Moscow for fuck’s sake.

At 10.am I went back to the cafe and it was finally open.  The Uzbeki waiter Jim spoke good English and was a budding film-maker.  He wanted to follow me on Instagram because I was an actor.  He now does.  He also realised that I’d been looking at 14 Tverskaya Street, rather than it’s cross street Tverskaya Bul Var, or Boulevard.  OMG.  I’d been walking through a monsoon for the last four hours and I was drenched.  I changed my shoes and my socks and headed in hopefully the correct direction.  The area was really nice.  After further fluffing in almost every direction I finally found the East-West Hotel hidden carefully behind a cool restaurant called Didi and checked in at 11am.  My room was small and perfect.  I examined my right foot.  Two blisters.  I broker them both and promptly fell asleep.

When I awoke some hours later I noticed that all the beer stains on the back of my England Jacket had been washed out by the monsoon rain.   It was time to walk out into the Russian capital and see what I could see.  In the small reception area of the hotel the TV was showing the defeated Russian players being paraded across the stage at the FanPark near Luzhniki, with their manager, thousands of Russians filming it on their phones.  The receptionist and I watched.  I turned to him and put my hand on my heart.   “Are you proud?”  I asked.  “No”  he said.  “Sad?” I asked.  “Yes” he said.  Fair enough I thought your team got knocked out on penalties.  “But do you feel patriotic?”  I asked again.  He rolled up his right trouser leg and showed me a thing white crescent scar around his kneecap.  “I was a footballer”  he said,  ” It could be me up there“.   I said I was sorry and walked out onto Tverskaya Bul Var.  As I walked in the bright sunshine I felt a lump in my throat and tears coming to my eyes.  The conversation had opened me right up.  Russia was making me feel emotions

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