Winning ways need not be winsome ones

Nick Harris goes Latin to check out the tension in the bar as the game hots up
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Ten years ago to the day since Diego Maradona punched the English out of the World Cup in Mexico, his Latin brethren might be forgiven for thinking that God switched sides this time. It certainly seemed that way in the Salsa Bar on Charing Cross Road on Saturday.

"We scored two times and should have had a penalty," said Jose, a Spanish student on an exchange programme. "But England have won," he added with a resigned grimace.

The streets of the West End had been curiously deserted. Perhaps it was due to a police clamp-down on football-shirted fans in pubs. Or perhaps, as the nation was gripped by the patriotic frenzy that is sporting success, everyone was at home in front of the telly.

The eclectic gathering in the cavernous bar was somewhat more surreal. There were Spanish, English, and even Dutch fans (Four hours early for their appointment with disappointment). There was Jacques, the laconic French barman, who had predicted an England win before the game. "England should meet France in the final, I think."

There was a contingent of Scots, divided in allegiance. Steven, down in London for the weekend, was supporting England. "We're all British, after all," he said, and started singing: "We're the Tartan Army and we're off to Wem-ber-ley," as if last weekend hadn't happened.

Tariq, a Londoner, was in the bar with a group of Spanish AC/DC fans, in England to attend a concert. The rivalry between them was friendly, he said, and added: "It could be that this game's been a bit over-hyped."

As if to prove his point there were four television crews present to witness the event, and a posse of tabloid hacks (one with an en-suite Gazza lookalike in full England kit and wearing a sombrero borrowed from the bar).

"I don't like the way the newspapers in England have been reporting this competition," said Marga, a Spaniard living in London. "I have no idea about football, but, being anti-foreign, this is not the right way of going. It's a pity."

A pity, too, for the Spanish, when their first goal was disallowed in the 21st minute. Nine minutes later, when it happened again, the "Oles" and the "Viva Espanas" became yet more frequent.

In contrast, the English fans were shouting: "Sort it out, Venables," before the match reached half-time. Oh, the fickle nature of an Englishman who has had his expectations raised above the rational. One supporter was being more contemplative: "That win against Holland did them no favours," he said. "Over-confidence can be a dangerous thing before a game like this."

In the second half, as England found their rhythm and Spain did their best to stamp on it, the crowd in Salsa warmed up. The 72nd-minute penalty plea brought half the bar to its feet.

In extra time, nails were being bitten and the golden goal-less period finished with some relief from both sides. During the shoot-out stage, the collective breath was held (punctuated only by short cries as the balls went in), until Seaman's denial of Nadal sent half the bar into a frenzy and the other half to the consolation of another beer.

Outside, England fans walked down Charing Cross Road joining the post- match pub spillage on its way to Trafalgar Square. One of them punched the air, and shouted: "En-ger-land, En-ger-land, the best team in the world!" As with Maradona a decade ago, it seemed it was the win that mattered, not the way of winning.