THE BIGGEST MATCH IN THE FOOTBALL WORLD: Listen with World Service replaces watch with others

Nothing illustrates better the grip that English club football exercises on supporters across the globe than the clamour to see the FA Cup final. Independent correspondents shared the Wembley experience with fans from Sydney to Nairobi
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The Independent Online
People at the Druid's Den, a tiny Irish pub in the centre of Rome, had a nasty surprise waiting for them as they clamoured for a beer minutes before the game. Having discovered that the Den would be the only place in town to show the match live on Telemontecarlo, the 200 or so fans that phoned in just to make sure had taken the advice of the barman, Shaun Graham, to heart; show up early if you want a seat.

By five to four, the place was singing and Graham, a Manchester United supporter since he was three, was happy as a lark. "I opened up the place for this," he said. "I should have opened at six."

As 4pm finally came around and the TV screen remained a dull shade of grey, Graham started pacing behind the bar. Tension spread across the room and as minutes went by, alarm turned into full-blown panic.

"I don't know what's happening," Graham yelled, gesticulating wildly. "It's the Italians, must be the Italians," he said. To which an Italian wrapped in a Roma scarf - who had earlier said "I come to wish bad luck on Liverpool" - objected loudly, demanding to know just where the television had been manufactured.

Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, sounds from BBC World Service reporting live from Wembley came on as the screen darkened and the word "radio" flashed out. Looks were exchanged, questions were asked. "I don't know", Graham kept yelling and a wide range of expletives were yelled out as the crowd gradually realised the BBC radio report was as good as it would ever get.

Only a few people walked out. The vast majority sat in place, mesmerised by the sounds, occasionally glancing at the blank screen. "I spent hours going through the yellow pages for this?" wondered a man from Manchester who had called all the pubs in Rome to find the one place showing the final.

A feeling of dismay settled in the room as a Liverpool fan, a laconic 25-year-old from Dungarvan, began telling the story of how he had his bags stolen in Turin. "My bags, my passport, my travellers cheques, everything. I was standing in a police station not understanding a word and thinking: what I am doing in this country? He pointed at the screen, nodding significantly. "See what I mean?" he said.

Just then the commentator's voice rose to a high-pitched holler and the background noise from the stands at Wembley turned into a roar. Everyone froze in an agonised hush. Manchester United fans found themselves staring right into the eyes of Liverpool supporters, beer mugs suspended in mid- air until the moment passed and the noise level returned to normal. "Sounds like an exciting game," said a man in red and yellow. "What it needs now is a goal, preferably from Liverpool." "Ooh, aah, Cantona," was the neighbour's reply.

As people peered anxiously into each other's faces, two Italians started arguing at the bar. "I came here to root for Manchester because I am a Laziale (a Lazio supporter, Roma's rival team)," one of them said.

"He is for Liverpool, and also for Roma, so I came to root against him." His friend offered an explanation: "I went to university at John Moores in Liverpool for three years so I support both Liverpool and Roma. He follows me around to cheer on the opposite team."

By half-time, the barman's insurgent rage was somewhat soothed by the crowd's patient listening, and with four minutes to go, as Cantona handed Manchester United its victory, it fizzled out completely, replaced by tearful gratitude. "That man," he said, shaking his head blissfully, "that man."