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The England soccer team, including (L-R) David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, arrives at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus, in Rustenburg, South Africa June 3, 2010. A cluster of local workers, police and security guards and a pack of television crews welcomed the England World Cup squad to their Rustenburg base in warm sunshine on Thursday. REUTERS/Michael Regan/Pool (POOL)
The England soccer team, including (L-R) David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, arrives at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus, in Rustenburg, South Africa June 3, 2010. A cluster of local workers, police and security guards and a pack of television crews welcomed the England World Cup squad to their Rustenburg base in warm sunshine on Thursday. REUTERS/Michael Regan/Pool (POOL)

Elizabeth Renzetti: In London

It's kickoff time for World Cup silly season Add to ...

This week saw the launch of an English World Cup perfume, Eau de Stade. ("Eau de Blighted Hopes" must have already been taken, perhaps by Argentina.) Unless I'm mistaken, Eau de Stade means Stadium Water, which is a scent that should remain in the bleachers, dealt with by professionals wearing gloves.

It's the dawn of World Cup silly season in Europe, when all manner of souvenirs hit the shops, and novelty songs arrive on the airwaves. The proof is in my cupboard, where there's a glass replica of the World Cup, purchased in Germany, which was once filled with Nutella.

But radio is where you'll find the real evidence that the greatest tournament in sport is about to begin in South Africa. For the first time in 40 years, there's no official song for the English team, and a very odd assortment of fans - bricklayers and strippers, comedians and pop stars - have rushed in to fill the void with a variety of unofficial tunes. They are united by only one thing, which Samuel Johnson described as "the triumph of hope over experience." He was talking about second marriages, though, not a 44-year drought between trophies.

"All these years of hurt never stopped me from dreaming," sings Robbie Williams on 3 Lions 2010, a remake of a chart-topping 1996 World Cup tune (in the background, fellow football fan Russell Brand sings along). Saturday night, on the live finale of Britain's Got Talent, Senor Svengali - a.k.a. Simon Cowell - reveals his entry into the World Cup pop-stakes: a cover version of the Tears for Fears hit Shout, with the great Dizzee Rascal rapping over top. The Mirror newspaper revealed some of the inspirational lyrics to Shout for England, which include, "Set aside your ego/ We're tired of bragging about 40-odd years ago."

Football and music have long been entwined - Andrew Lloyd Webber even wrote a musical called The Beautiful Game. The Three Lions team has arrived in South Africa for their first game against the United States next Saturday, leaving the airplane with their headphones around their necks, but back at home pop music is actually posing a threat to the country's favourite game.

It all comes down to the grass at Wembley Stadium. England is currently mounting a ₤13-million ($19.9-million) bid to win the World Cup in 2018 (the decision, hugely lucrative to the host country, will be made in six months). One of the centrepieces of the bid is Wembley, the world-renowned stadium in north London, which was rebuilt three years ago and is, like its predecessor, used for both football and pop concerts. Wembley has always been just as famous for Freddie Mercury thrusting his groin skywards as Bobby Moore hoisting the World Cup in the air in 1966, the last time England won the trophy.

That's the problem: Football players have been vocal about their dislike for the pitch (the grass playing surface) and blame its condition on the fact that it's not used solely for sports. After Chelsea won the FA Cup final last month, team captain John Terry said, "The pitch ruined the final. It's probably the worst we've played on all year. It was not good enough for a Wembley pitch. The FA have to decide if this is a football pitch or an events stadium." Other players complained that their boots got stuck in the turf, or they slipped all over the place.

I put the question to Andy Anson, who heads the England 2018 bid team, during a tour of Wembley this week. Was the state of the pitch, and the complaints of star England players, enough to scupper the bid? No, he said, because there are six years to fix the surface, but he agreed that it's an urgent concern: "The problem has to be sorted out by next season."

While he spoke, a crew was setting up the stage for Sunday's Capital Radio concert. You could see a tiny glimpse of green under the protective Terraplas surface being placed on the turf. Ten thousand people will be dancing on that floor this weekend; we can only guess how many pints of beer and spilled alcopops the grass underneath will absorb.

After each concert, a fresh pitch has to be sown. At most stadiums devoted only to football, the grass can be left to breathe in the summer when there are no games. This year at Wembley there are 38 events, two-thirds of them football matches. The stadium has 90,000 seats, making it the second-largest in Europe and a natural venue for arena-rock bands like U2. The managers of the stadium have to hold lucrative concerts if they want to meet their target of recouping their construction costs by 2014. In the meantime, though, they're angering the football world.

Football and pop music are two pillars of modern culture in this country - which should be supreme? The 2018 bid team say that seven million people play football every week in England; how many more disdain the game, and would call themselves pop fans instead?

One of the people who will be singing on Wembley's stage on Sunday is Cheryl Cole, England's favourite pop princess. Until recently, she was half of a glamorous union - her husband, Ashley Cole, is a star of the English football team. Now they're getting divorced; Ashley got into a spot of trouble when he sent semi-naked photos of himself to women who were not Cheryl.

Obviously she's not joining him in South Africa. She'll be at Wembley, where she will most definitely not be singing a World Cup song. If she is taking requests, though, she might consider updating Nancy Sinatra: "One of these days these football boots are gonna walk all over you."

 

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