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OK, turns out watching football at 7am can be fun after all

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OK, turns out watching football at 7am can be fun after all

What’s so exciting about getting up early in the morning to cheer on a historically losing football team? Sport sceptic Lyric Waiwiri-Smith headed to the pub to find out.

A childhood of watching the Wellington Phoenix eat dirt at the formerly-known-as Westpac Stadium, listening to my father whinge and moan about his favourite team (Tottenham, of course) and going to school with football lads had soured my view of the game for many years. Sports itself doesn’t spark any strong emotion in me, but in the midst of a major football tournament, it seemed time to see how the other half lives.

Which is how I found myself joining a crowd of England fans at The Fox, which markets itself as a “London pub”, in downtown Auckland at 7am on a cold July morning to watch the Three Lions take on the Netherlands in the semi-final of the European Championships in Germany.

One does not simply wake up at 6am, and walk into a bar at 7am – this event is ticketed, to the tune of $20 a head, and anyone without is left to walk away into the cold Auckland city street, or else watch the match through the bar’s windows.

There’s a line forming outside at quarter to seven, and with just a bit of time still to go, the lads are already letting their voices get hoarse with shouting in the smoking area. A handful of accents can be heard throughout the pub – London, Yorkshire, Scouse — but most punters seem to be New Zealanders, overwhelmingly male, many old enough to remember Euro matches of yore, with others too young to even remember David Beckham’s prime. If you could testosterone test a room, this one would be a biohazard.

The chants of “football’s coming home” seem a bit ironic, considering there is no English home for the Henri Delaunay trophy to return to. England has never won the Euros, now in their 17th edition, 64 years on from the first-ever tournament. The closest they’ve come to victory was in 2020, when their first-time shot at the finals ended in a win for Italy. If we’re speaking statistics, we’re rooting for a bunch of losers.

In thinking this, the wise words of my father drift into my head: “You can change your job, you can change your girlfriend, but you can never change your football team” (paraphrasing a quote from former French footballer Eric Cantona). He would know, because he still supports the Hotspurs after nearly 50 years. We might be backing the historical losers, but blood and faith is thicker than bandwagon jumping.

The crowd at The Fox celebrate England's victory over the Netherlands in the Euros.The crowd at The Fox celebrate England's victory over the Netherlands in the Euros.
It’s time to see how the other half – football fans – live.

When the players finally enter the pitch, punters throw prayers into the air and plant their pints onto the bar tables. Some, the real Brits, hold a hand over their heart as they scream God Save the King, and just as passionately boo the Netherlands national anthem.

Standing in the pub, it’s hard not to assume The Stance: feet firmly on the ground, arms folded, eyes focused on one of 12 television screens. If something bad happens, you must throw your arms into the air with palpable disappointment and let out a groan. If something good happens, you throw your hands into the air with positive intentions, and shout. If things are tense, hold your hands up to your face to cover the anxiety quivering on your lips – that way, you’ll also be perfectly positioned  to fling your arms out if needed.

Six minutes in, Netherlands scores the first goal of the game, and a collective groan ripples through the pub. “There was too much space,” someone reckons. Another hopes a penalty could be called, but it’s business as usual.

After England’s Harry Kane misses a goal, there’s a bit of a fuss on the pitch. The referee makes a square with his hands, the crowd cheers, and apparently a player from the Netherlands team has been yellow carded. Back in the room, it’s clear I’m drinking among a crowd of seasoned boozers from way back, because pints are being emptied and repoured with breakneck speed. In case you haven’t indulged in the activity yourself, sipping a pale ale in the early morning is surprisingly sobering, and if you haven’t had breakfast in you already, the alcohol sits pretty heavily in your stomach.

About 20 minutes in, the room almost halts when Kane gets in position to kick a penalty goal. Every person in the pub, unless there’s a secret Netherlands fan hiding in a corner, wants that ball to meet the net. Watching him ready himself for the kick only takes a few moments, but it feels like forever, and maybe it feels even longer for Kane. The pressure from his team, the stadium, the fans watching on the telly and the crowd in this bar on the other side of the world must sometimes feel unbearable – and then he scores the goal.

The crowd at The Fox celebrate England's win over the Netherlands.The crowd at The Fox celebrate England's win over the Netherlands.
GOOOAALLLL!

Drinks get spilled, arms are lifted into the air, and The Fox rumbles with the shouting and singing of some 100 football fans, who could just as easily be concertgoers at the Eras Tour. There goes another chorus of ‘Football’s Coming Home’, and the lads indulge in what their kind knows as “absolute scenes”. It’s not a scene I find myself in often, but the energy is infectious, and what’s the point of standing in a corner nonplussed while everyone around is swearing and shouting. Not all British men are so brutish, though – on the social media accounts of the freshly minted UK prime minister Keir Starmer, he celebrates Kane’s score with a subdued pump of the fist and a handshake with Netherlands’ prime minister Dick Schoof.

As soon as the players walk off the pitch for halftime, the crowd in The Fox migrates to the bar or the smoking area, where one England fan is unimpressed with the 1News reporter doing a live cross for Breakfast with what seems to be a freshly purchased English flag and scarf. “It’s brand fucking new! Typical fucking Kiwis,” he sneers. “As soon as there’s a bit of atmosphere, they’re like, ‘ooh, what’s going on there?’” Take note: English culture is not a costume.

It might be a good time to grab something from the breakfast menu (sausage rolls, or a full English) but there’s a blockade at the bar, and I’m not sure that full English would be safely delivered in the tight crowd. Those 15 minutes between the first and second half must be spent wisely, so everyone is prioritising a beer top-up.

The second half is much less exciting, both teams seeming tense and wary of this make-or-break round. There’s slight anxiety when England coach Gareth Southgate calls captain Kane and Phil Foden off the field. I’m worried, because after Saka those are the only two players whose names I’ve memorised, and the crowd is worried, I think, because they’re quite good players.

It’s 40 minutes of back and forth, back and forth, kicking the ball, stopping the ball from going to the enemy, and so on. I’m reminded that sport is mostly just a waiting game, which is why I virtually never watch it. The last sports match I had seen in full was the Super Bowl, but only because there were cuts to Taylor Swift every five minutes, or her boyfriend. Unfortunately, there is no Taylor Swift or Travis Kelce in the Euros.

But even as a bystander, the mood in the pub is tense as fans start to chew their nails and nervously whisper to each other. They can’t imagine a final without their favourite team, and all the cheers of “it’s coming home” would seem meaningless now if they can’t get past the semi-final. Then, just at the 90-minute mark, Ollie Watkins scores England’s second goal.

The room erupts again with hugs, cheers, song, shouts (no tears, but the actions had the same message anyway) and general hysteria. Some cover their mouths in shock, others jump into moshes forming in front of the television screens, and amid all the cheering, a woman clutching onto a wine glass gives an apologetic smile. “Sorry about my husband,” she says. The man in question has become lost in the flurry of jumping bodies and spilled liquor. It’s exactly the right environment for it, if anything.

On Monday morning, The Fox will be thumping again when England meet Spain in the finals, for their second chance at becoming Euros champions. No matter how much cultural and physical dissonance there is between New Zealand and the UK, our identity as a commonwealth nation is never as obvious as when an international football match comes around. If not for the king, then for the thrill of going to the pub and watching men kick a ball around a pitch.

I personally stand to win $150 from a sweepstake if Spain wins the Euros, but as an objective and unbiased journalist, I feel obliged to say it’s coming home. Can they achieve it? Ask someone who is actually a sports reporter.

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