Britain will grind to a collective halt this evening as 15 million television viewers retire to their sofas for the opening game of England's World Cup campaign against the United States, amid signs of a football-driven spending spree – and surprisingly heartfelt Anglo-American sporting rancour.
Kick-off at the Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenberg between the two sides will presage predicted additional retail sales of nearly £1bn if Fabio Capello's team manage to progress into the knock-out stage of the tournament, providing the economy with a badly-needed boost which could rise to £2.01bn of extra spending if England reach the final.
It is accompanied by an outbreak of unabashed patriotism, both for and against England, as an estimated three million St George Cross flags, most of them manufactured in China, are draped from windows and clipped to cars. On the Celtic fringes, the Anyone But England campaign remains strong despite a warning from police that a display of ABE T-shirts in one Aberdeen shop could be seen as racist.
From climbing beer sales to an unhealthily steep drop in fruit consumption among 16- to 24-year-olds, the nation's physical, economic and mental well-being will be judged for the next month through the prism of England's efforts in the glittering new stadia of South Africa.
During the tournament Britain is expected to consume 211 million extra pints of beer, eat eight fewer items of fruit per person, and the competition is likely to be the first sporting event to attract more than £1bn of bets.
It is also likely to cause a doubling of 999 calls to the London Ambulance Service whenever the final whistle is blown on a match involving England, a rise in demand for relationship counselling offered by the charity Relate and an increase in absenteeism which the Chartered Management Institute believes could lose UK Plc £1bn-worth of working hours.
One City-based retail analyst told The Independent: "Beyond the hype, the World Cup is very useful as a barometer for what people really want. It doesn't take a World Cup to make us want lager, supermarkets always sell more beer in the summer. The best-ever year for beer production in the UK was 2003, when there was no big football tournament.
"But when it comes to shifting flat-screen televisions, holidays abroad or whatever, the World Cup offers a finite period in which the retail pressure can be really ratcheted up. You stick a George Cross on your marketing material, discount heavily and hope it catches a wave of euphoria. From that point of view, Rooney et al are a godsend. But only as long as they are playing well."
Unfortunately for the nation's sellers of electrical goods, it does not seem that one of the defining features of the 2006 World Cup – a rush to buy new televisions – has been repeated.
At least not in Argos outlets. The catalogue chain, which is the UK's largest seller of TVs, said a sharp fall in demand for flat-panel screens was one of the biggest factors in a 8.1 per cent fall in sales in the last quarter.
But there can be little doubt about football's enduring ability to provoke strong feelings. While psychological warfare ahead of England matches with long-standing rivals such as Germany or Brazil is to be expected, it is perhaps a measure of current stresses in the Special Relationship that the clash with the USA has provoked some sharp words.
On a diplomatic level, the shows of bravado have been at least outwardly friendly. The respective ambassadors have bet a dinner on the outcome of tonight's match. Nigel Sheinwald said: "As Britain's ambassador to the US, I will tell you I am supremely confident about England's chances."
But elsewhere, the tension between the two teams and their supporters threatens to become more bellicose. Jonathan Spector, a US defender who plays for West Ham, has described the match as America's "easiest" in their group while other team mates have hinted darkly at seeking to profit from Wayne Rooney's fiery temper.
Jay DeMerit, another US defender, said: "Ultimately, you try to make his day difficult. If you start to make those types of personalities have a difficult day, then maybe those types of things come out."
Some American fans wanted to go further yesterday. One, writing on a US football forum as BritHater, said: "They can foul up our backyard with our oil, but we'll screw their mediocre, rusty-teethed soccer players."
With ITV charging £300,000 for a 30-second advertising slot during the game, it is likely that the response of retail-obsessed Britons to such sabre rattling will be suitably restrained.
The National Grid said it is preparing for a 1,100 megawatt increase in demand at around 9.15pm tonight – equivalent to the switching on of 1.2 million kettles – as the nation responds to a hoped-for victory with a nice cup of tea.
Lives touched by the madness
John Boyle, brewer, 66, Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland
The World Cup has been great for business – but not quite so good for my family life. We are all running around at the brewery trying to keep up with the demand for ale.
I have had to take on new staff and buy extra fermentation vessels to increase our production capacity by 50 per cent – we are turning out 120 barrels a week, distributing them all the way from Edinburgh to Leeds. We have been turning down orders.
An increasing proportion of the business has been selling beer directly to people to drink in their homes with friends watching the match. The hours have been very long hours, it is bloody hard work!
Andy Ormrod, 49, the owner of flag-makers Flying Colours in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
The World Cup is always an important time for us, but this year is more crucial than ever. We have nine people working here so we're only a small company, but we've managed to weather the recession without having to let anyone go. This is an opportunity for things to get back on track again.
The last World Cup, in Germany, was tremendous because it was close enough for people to travel by road and take big flags to the stadiums with them. This time, obviously you have to fly to South Africa, so there hasn't been the same demand. Instead, we have been seeing lots of England flag orders from organisations – big companies, local authorities, a university, hotels. We are having to buy as much red and white woven polyester as we can.
In the last week the orders have been pouring in. We had one for 32 flags from a single company which we'll get out today. The largest flag we have made recently has been 25ft by 15ft, and it took six people to erect it on the front of a Harrogate hotel.
It is genuinely pleasing to see people and organisations take pride in the English flag in a way that perhaps they hadn't a few years ago.
Paula Hall, 44, relationship psychotherapist, Leamington Spa
I have found that an event like the World Cup really can highlight the problems that a couple might be facing. I certainly see people where the World Cup is an issue. It is one of those events that can provide extra stress for relationships where there are already problems for a couple.
If both partners enjoy football, it can be a brilliant shared experience. If a relationship is strong and each partner has respect for the need of the other, then the World Cup will not be much of an issue even if one of you isn't really into football. But the problems you see tend to come if the relationship is already in difficulties – the games come to represent a problem in the balance between intimacy and autonomy in a relationship.
The partner who really dislikes football may end up feeling abandoned, particularly if the problem in the relationship revolves around the issue of being treated suitably as a priority.
There are ways around this. The World Cup is a scheduled event and interested parties know in advance when games will be played, so it is not like some crisis out of the blue. Like any difficulty in a relationship, the secret is communication and compromise. One solution I suggest is to negotiate some quality time together or arrange compensations for watching games over an intensive period. In return for a night of football, a partner can require a lie-in or a shopping trip where your husband doesn't moan.
Ian Rogers, 41, production manager at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, Nottingham
My role during the World Cup is to keep the televisions and kettles of Britain running. So, while a lot of other people are sitting watching the matches I am at work, making sure the power keeps flowing. A power cut during the final, with England playing, does not even bear thinking about.
On a day-to-day basis, our job will become a lot more hectic. We expect to see a large surge in energy demand, particularly at half-time during the England games, so we needed to change our working patterns to make sure we are there to deal with any surges.
But hopefully it won't be all work, work, work: we have a fairly relaxed attitude. So long as the job is getting done, we can all gather round to watch the matches.
Karole Seaby, 56, bouncer, Elephant and Castle, south London
The men will all be drinking more and that means more trouble for us door staff to deal with. I work in a Soho nightclub and we expect to see large queues forming until late in the night. When England win, it will not be too difficult to deal with: everyone will be happy. But if England lose that will make my job a lot more difficult.
Bouncers don't mind the the drinking and the noise too much when pubs are busy – pubs are controlled environments for bouncers. It's outside where there might be more trouble for me to deal with. People can get very excited about the World Cup because it only comes round once every four years. But for me and for most other door staff, it is just another job, albeit a difficult one.
Nick Clayton, 26, English teacher in a Wirral high school
For me, the World Cup could be one of two things: a great distraction, or an excellent teaching aid. I hope to make it the latter.
Some teachers see the whole thing as a hindrance: they worry that classes get disrupted. Schools are saying they are going to close early when England matches are on, while others are staying open late to screen them. I have even heard of plans in some schools to write score updates on the whiteboards in exam rooms.
I prefer to look at the World Cup as an opportunity. Some of our students won't have heard of a few of the nations that are competing, so we are going to use that as an excuse to teach them about their respective cultures and literature, as well as their geography and history. We are going to trick them into learning. It will mean working harder in lesson preparation, but we will reap the benefits in the future.Reuse content