Mark Steel: After sneering at the funny people, a cheer of relief

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The Independent Online

The earliest part of the game that was predictable was the bit where we were told how peculiar these funny little people are, from this funny little country. So there was lots of publicity for rain doctors, and one newspaper showed us how they eat guinea-pigs in batter because they're that strange, and I expected it to continue: "The FA have lodged a complaint that should Ecuador win, they must be disqualified because they're so weird they're not actually people; they're a sort of shellfish, which are ineligible to play under Fifa guidelines."

Then there was the sneering at how they'd attained nearly all their qualification points at home because their home games are played at high altitude, which no one else can cope with - implying their points shouldn't count. They probably put that altitude there on purpose, the dirty cheating Ecuadorian bastards.

In the slightly old days, this would at least have given England supporters something to trash if we lost. Because Ecuador doesn't make cars or have many restaurants, so you'd have had lads boasting "After the match we gave this mountain a right kicking. Took seven foot off it, they've had to re-print the Ordnance Survey map."

But now the atmosphere is more mellow, and it was especially mellow at my local pub, where it wasn't as crowded as expected. But that might be because the big screen blew up during the match against Trinidad and Tobago, so everyone had to huddle round a portable telly like they do in places like Ecuador.

But it was fairly full, and like many crowds at entertainment events, some thought the unfolding event was vital, while some were half-interested. Anyone who's been in a band, or done stand-up comedy, knows the success of these gigs depends on exciting these stragglers who begin by standing at the back and chatting by the bar. By the time Ecuador hit the bar four people were playing pool, two were on the fruit machine and one woman was sat reading an article in a magazine about Emmerdale.

After half an hour of lethargy, one lad yelled: "Hang on - they're from South America - we must be able to get them disqualified for some human rights violation."

So what would Sven do to shake things up at half-time? Well, his options were restricted on account of his decision to include an unknown 17-year-old in the squad when he clearly has no intention of playing him. If Sven was going to waste one place like that, at least he could have made some sort of artistic statement by selecting a parrot or a biscuit.

For a while, at the start of the second half, the potential was shown. As England played more fluently, the pool and fruit machine stopped and the woman put down her magazine.

Even so, the cheer that greeted Beckham's marvellous free kick was mostly of relief, not joy. And shortly after, it all went back to normal, and these talented and inspiring sportsmen were once again unable to express their talent or inspiration. So the clientele in the back row discussed holidays and cars, and one shot on the screen showed a sea of England fans, not even looking angry or frustrated, but almost losing interest. These stadiums have screens at the matches. I thought their purpose was to show replays of goals, but the England fans were probably yelling: "Here, you couldn't get Emmerdale on that, could you?"

So far in this World Cup I've watched matches with crowds from 11 nationalities, and yesterday's game was, by a long distance, the most joyless of the lot. In the past this would probably have been because of the supporters; now it's the team. So instead of the congas and drumming and fireworks and carnivals of Argentinians or Mexicans, at full time there was a phew and a cheer, because the stars of the Premiership had scraped past a team whose secret strike weapon was a bloke we couldn't wait to get rid of from Crystal Palace.

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