Lager & Love Handles at Euro 2000

By their drinks shall you know them: The English at play, on home turf and abroad
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The short man at the bar of the Charles II Tavern wants three beers. "Three" he says loudly to the woman who is serving.

The short man at the bar of the Charles II Tavern wants three beers. "Three" he says loudly to the woman who is serving.

In case she has not understood, the short man's friend, a big, heavy bulk also wearing an England football shirt, repeats the order. Then, just to ensure that there is no remnant of confusion and to help this woman who in their eyes is clearly a simpleton, the pair both hold up three fingers which they wave at her.

The woman sets to work, pouring foaming golden lager into plastic cups which she then puts on the bar in front of Shorty. "Fill that one up will you," he says, clearly dissatisfied with the size of the frothy head. "And those two."

The waitress obeys and the men gather their drinks. "It's meant to be beer, not fucking ice cream," exclaims Bulk, as they walk off. You can sense his utter exasperation: these foreigners, they have no idea.

Another fan at the bar also wants serving but as he tries to speak to the waitress, he starts coughing in a manner that makes you fear for his health. There are beads of sweat running down his forehead and once he finishes coughing he returns to his cigarette. He too wants a large beer.

Watching England's football supporters prepare for a crucial match is a pleasant enough way to while away a couple of good-natured hours in the southern Belgian sunshine. There are no great insights to be had, no one would come away with some revelation hammering in their heads as to what it is that makes this fanatical group of fans click, but it is informative in a certain fashion.

Take Love Handles over here with his shirt off. You could not exactly call him fat, but viewed from behind, a good inch or two of blubber is piled up above the waistband of his England shorts. His back is dripping with sweat.

He is standing in the central square in Charleroi, vaguely taking part in a game of keep-it-up with a bunch of the others. Trouble is, Love Handles may be a good enough natured bloke, but he is not much of a footballer. He smiles ruefully to his mate, Shaven Head, as he miskicks the ball and it flies off across the square.

But Shaven Head's attention is elsewhere. A group of young women have just walked past, wearing T-shirts which advertise that they are offering free face-painting for fans who would like to have their team's national flag drawn on their mugs.

Shaven Head may not be so sure about having his face painted but after the young women have walked past, he appears to suggest to Love Handles that he would quite like a go at Face Painting. Well, her or one of her mates. He doesn't seem fussy.

Across the other side of the square a group of young lads are also playing keep it up with their own ball. They are a bit better than Love Handles and most of their stomachs have not yet succumbed to middle-aged spread. They, too, are happy to have their shirts off, their shoulders running the colour spectrum from lobster red to a deep brown.

Perhaps suitably enough given their age, the Young Lads are among the rowdiest of the fans in the square. As they kick their ball into the air, careful not to spill their beers which they languidly hold in one hand, they have a bit of a shout. One Young Lad tries to start singing a few of the supporters' anthems, but no one is interested. They have not drunk enough yet.

A couple of fans are listening to a teenage band that is creating some awful sort of industrial-speed-rap-grunge from a stage on the edge of the square. They are supposed to be the entertainment. The songs are in French but the chorus to one of them is in English. The refrain goes "Motherfucker" repeated several times. The fans listening do not seem overly impressed but they stay to listen to the next song.

Later, once the teenagers have finished, a Belgian will come and play the accordion. The fans like that even less.

After a couple of hours all this can wear a bit thin. The atmosphere is not at all aggressive - it may be loutish, unrefined and macho, but it is not threatening.

As the local gendarmerie captain later points out: "The people here are different to last Saturday. Then we had hooligans of all nations. Today there is no animosity."

No, the point is that unless you are one of the fans, unless you are paying £25 for the privilege of sweating in a shirt of man-made fibre bearing the three lions of England, unless you are like Love Handles, Shaven Head and Young Lad, unless you are a fanatical England supporter, then it is all rather dull and pointless.

And, of course, if that is the case, then you should really be somewhere else.