Did you know that Wayne Rooney married his childhood sweetheart Colleen in a £5 million (6.3 million-euro, $9.8 million) wedding in Italy this week? Of course you didn't because you're too busy following Euro 2008.
England fans want to sleep through Euro 2008 and wake up for the World Cup qualifiers
This was the main news in the UK (even eclipsing the Irish EU Treaty "no" vote in some cases) during my visit to check on how my country folk were dealing with not being involved in Euro 2008. And while there weren't exactly tumbleweeds blowing down the deserted roads of old Blighty, there weren't any lobster-colored skinheads rolling in the streets either. It was kinda eerie.
Since England capitulated in November of last year, the country has been looking ahead to Euro 2008 like an appointment for a root canal. After a calamitous qualification campaign, which saw Steve McLaren's team lose twice to Croatia and once to Russia, England failed to qualify for a major tournament for the first time in 14 years. Euro 2008 without England really didn't bear thinking about for the English. As a result, many resolved to ignore it in the hope the pain and disappointment would go away.
Shopping the pain away
Taking to the city in search of some enthusiasm for Euro 2008, it soon became obvious that retail therapy was the chosen crutch of the grieving English. While the sale and rent of widescreen televisions were reportedly taking a massive knock in relation to figures during the World Cup in 2006, the amount of people swarming through the shops suggested that while the rest of Europe was glued to the soccer, the English were making up for losing their party invite by trying to aid the shell-shocked economy.
The British Retail Consortium says that on the basis of England's progress in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, Euro 2008 could have contributed an extra £1.3 billion (1.65 billion euros), but will now be less than half that figure. Estimates put the figure of how much the British economy would lose from England's failure to be around £200 million.
England is a bargain bin for unwanted merchandise
These figures may have failed to take into consideration the fact that the only thing we English do better than drinking is running up huge credit card bills. Maybe the government thought that the sale of tacky rubbish with the St. George's cross on it was the cornerstone of our island's financial stability. If this indeed had been the case, then we may have soon become the subject for some UN donor conference.
My country's optimism is both enduring and endearing when it comes to soccer but it can also be our downfall. Judging by the endless bargain bins full of unsold tacky England souvenirs, many a hopeful entrepreneur was suffering along with the broken-hearted fans who had lost their lust for cheaply made, plastic merchandise. The lack of flags, shirts and other sundry tack was glaringly obvious.
However, some things seemed the same; there was the muffled sound of soccer statistics floating on the stagnant breeze and a few continental colors on show in the sun-kissed beer gardens, but the difference from previous summers were still very much in evidence.
I could get to the bar in any chosen pub, in the middle of a game, and get served without having to squeeze between bulldog tattoos and rancid armpits. I could relieve myself in the facilities -- which would normally be reminiscent of the Somme -- without having to weave my way across a carpet of my fallen brethren. There were seats available near the screens and there were no out-of-tune renditions of Three Lions drowning out the pundits. It was, dare I say it, very civilized and relaxed.
This scene usually happens during, not before, a tournament
I engaged a couple of lads who sat nearby in conversation during the half-time break in the Greece-Russia game. They were devoid of team colours and while there were a few Greek shirts on show, I safely assumed that these two would be locals -- or Russians with strong Norfolk accents.
"What's the atmosphere in the city been like so far during the tournament?" I asked.
"This is the first game we've seen in the pub," said one. "We're out clubbing later and thought this would be a good starting point."
"Have you watched many at home?" said I.
"A few but only when a decent team is on, like Portugal or Holland," said the other. "These two have been rubbish," he added, waving a hand at the television.
"Do you think the English are bothered about Euro 2008?" I asked.
"Those who like footie will watch it all, I s'pose. But what's the point really when your team's not in it?"
The obvious dearth of clientele suggested many others felt the same. I went unhindered to the bar for a refill. While waiting patiently for my Guinness to settle I asked the landlord if business was suffering yet.
"Looking back to the World Cup, this place is a ghost town in comparison," he said. "I reckon my takings will be down by around 40 percent by the end of the tournament, in comparison to the same period two years ago. The only thing which would make matters worse would be if the bloody Germans win it."
I returned to my seat, which had remained vacated, safe in the knowledge that at least some things never change.
Media coverage: cursory and Premiership-centric
The indifference towards Euro 2008 seemed to extend to the media coverage.
The coverage in England dedicated to the tournament has been tinged with schadenfreude and barely concealed bitterness. After flicking through the dailies and their cursory reports, I realized that maybe this wasn't the best time to assess the impact of the tournament on the printed media.
Knowing how the British papers love to expand their daily editions into weekend tomes heavy enough to stun a Rottweiler, I thought I would give them one more chance to show that they were actually getting into the spirit of things.
The Times tries to make England feel better by highlighting Germany's defeat to Croatia
Against my better judgement, I picked up the Times, hoping that their reputation for quality would provide me with in-depth Euro 2008 coverage. I was wrong. It was full of Premiership-centric reporting and, worse, cricket. (One thing many soccer fans forget is that England's participation in summer tournaments helps to distract from the fact that the world's dullest sport is back for another season – cricket's return to sporting dominance is another extremely sad aspect of England's failure to qualify).
The Times had a nice picture of some Croatian rubbing Germany's nose in it AGAIN (despite the game having taken place on Thursday) while the back page was dominated by the story of Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari's fantasy football shopping list for when he takes over at Chelsea.
Turning the page, Big Phil was still Big News, enjoying a double spread which filled us in on everything from his reliance on a sports psychologist to how much meat the manly new Premiership celebrity eats (enough to put a fully grown puma to shame, trivia fans!).
Four pages in and the Euro 2008 coverage began -- and ended. Crushed into three columns (with a tedious commentary on golfer Colin Montgomery on the side), the entirety of the European Championships fought for attention, dominated again by a re-hashing of the Germany defeat again, as if to reinforce the view that losing to Croatia suddenly exonerated England from its own ignominious failure.
Newsflash: It doesn't.
England-based stars bring pride by proxy
Perversely turning in hope to the tabloids, I was initially enthused by the glorious color spread of what appeared to be an in-depth feature on Spain in the Daily Mirror. However, once past the flashy photos, the story actually centered on Fernando Torres and how great the Premiership is.
Liverpool's Torres also plays for some southern European country with nice beaches
"Nando," apparently, was going to "do the Premiership proud" by beating Sweden single-handedly that evening (Saturday). Far from doing so to ease Spain's route into the quarter-finals, the Liverpool striker was going to show that he plays in the best league in the world by leading the line for some sweaty little holiday destination which was apparently taking part in some kick-around with a bunch of other Johnny Foreigners.
It appeared in most papers that Euro 2008 was just an excuse to give articles about English domestic soccer a new angle over the summer. Many seemed to be taking up the BBC's rallying call to support another nation by highlighting the progress of certain countries based on the performance of their Premiership stars.
TV coverage accused of lacking enthusiasm
The BBC, who had tried in vain to drum up enthusiasm with this "Who Will You Support?" campaign on their web site, unfortunately forgot to send this memo to their TV presenters. The lack of any interest and excitement in the tournament during the Beeb's coverage has apparently been so obvious that the papers are starting to pick up on it.
The BBC's coverage has been accused of being boring
It seems that it's not only the print media which can't be bothered to do more than the bare minimum just because England aren't involved. Apparently, according to one surprisingly pro-Euro commentary, the Beeb commentators are not only going through the motions but doing it in such a way to send those who are actually interested to sleep -- or worse, to Sky Sports where the cricket is being shown.
Although my visit was brief, I was satisfied that my conclusion was as accurate as it could be in such circumstances. While the rest of Europe has barely noticed that England aren't at Euro 2008, the English are making it very obvious that they don't care either -- but for very different reasons.