A football-crazy nation gears down for Blank Monday

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The Independent Online
THE EXCUSES are going to have to be very creative indeed. The usual attempts to add an extra day to the weekend may hit epidemic proportions on Monday when millions take time off to watch England's opening World Cup game against Tunisia.

As businesses grapple with the prospect of a Blank Monday and non-football lovers relish the thought of empty shops and roads, the BBC estimates at least 16 million sets will be tuned in at 1pm.

Many employers are preparing for the inevitable by trying to keep their employees around for at least part of the day by installing large-screen televisions or piping the commentary into the shop floor. Some are even hospitably inviting in clients to watch in comfort.

But others are taking a harder line. Ford has threatened its 30,000-strong, predominantly male workforce that anyone going sick without good reason faces disciplinary action. Oddly, production ceased yesterday at its largest plant, Dagenham, Essex, because of an unexplained shortage of key components and it appears that work may be affected for a couple of days. Londoners will have an added incentive to stay at home on Monday, as Tube workers begin a two-day walkout on Sunday night. Flyers in London Underground's staff areas read: "Relax, put your feet up and watch the football courtesy of [transport union] the RMT."

Hundreds of construction workers on the Jubilee Line Tube extension, which is months behind schedule, have hit the jackpot. They are being paid not to work on Monday afternoon after the contractors Drake and Skull reportedly felt that staff returning from watching the game in the pub could be a safety nightmare.

The best chance of workplace footy is if your company happens to be backing the tournament. Hewlett Packard and BP, both sponsors of France 98, have both installed television screens in their staff restaurants. Sainsbury has gone one step further by introducing theme clothing, and allowing staff to watch the match on a rota basis.

The advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather has allocated a room with a large- screen television. And there is a bar for the evening games. Even Year Five at Our Lady and St Joseph RC Primary School in London will be watching the match.

Some Labour MPs have clubbed together to buy a wide-screen television and to hire a Commons committee room complete with food and drink. For only pounds 50 each, the 60 MPs will be assured private viewing and after the tournament there will be a second-hand wide-screen set on offer in Westminster, if anyone is interested.

But some remain unmoved by what is, after all just a football match. The Association of British Chambers of Commerce, which has muttered about losses in revenue, has told delegates to its conference in Birmingham on Tuesday to arrive a day early - presumably just to sit in their hotel rooms. Working, of course.

World Cup, Sport, pages 24-28