After losing a tense 3-2 penalty shoot against Italy in the final of the Euro 2020 championship on Sunday night, the young English soccer team’s high hopes of “bringing home” the trophy were dashed at the last minute. The close result has shaken up London, where, despite surging coronavirus case numbers, every single pub was fully booked.
Almost immediately after the match, England players Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, and Marcus Rashford, all of whom are Black, were subjected to a slew of racist abuse on social media. Minutes after his penalty kick was saved, 19-year-old Saka’s Instagram account was flooded with monkey emojis. In Manchester, a mural of Rashford was vandalized with graffiti. It has since been covered with messages of support. In earlier matches, some England fans booed the team for taking the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The British police opened an investigation into Sunday night’s racist online abuse, while England manager Gareth Southgate described it as “unforgivable.”
On London’s Piccadilly Line subway, a Scottish woman asked a group of England merch-adorned men to wear masks. They thought she was American. “Fuck off American!” They shouted at her. “It’s not your day!”
The Metropolitan Police announced late Sunday night that 19 officers had been injured dealing with the “volatile crowds” loosed upon the city.
Several people at the station told me they’d come to London “for the atmosphere.” James, 22, from Bristol, has been working as a supermarket cashier for the past 16 months of lockdown.
“I just decided to come to London for the big match, I’ve booked a hotel,” he told me, “We’ll probably bottle it, though.” His plan is to “get pissed up and walk around,” then watch the game in his room.
Earlier this week, even Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who faces legal challenges for causing potentially tens of thousands of avoidable COVID-19 deaths and who is more of a rugby fan, jumped on the bandwagon and teased the public with the prospect of a national holiday if the home team won the match.
The final at London’s Wembley Stadium was one of several “pilot events” to test the safety of mass gatherings ahead of what Johnson is calling “Freedom Day,” or July 19, when people in the U.K. can choose whether or not they want to continue wearing masks indoors. Johnson says vaccinations have “severed” the link between cases and deaths, but a coalition of more than 100 scientists said his strategy of “mass infection” is dangerous and unprecedented. Test from stadium events indicate that they may be safe, with only 8 out of 30,000 spectators testing positive after attending test events in June, but the results are only based on the measly 15 percent of attendees who returned their PCR tests.
Two hours before the match, fans without tickets tried to break into Wembley, where 60,000 people were watching the final.
Two minutes after kick-off, a slow, then massive scream went up on Leicester Square—London's “unofficial fan zone”—among the hundreds of youths who’d crowded around a miniature park to rave and throw smoke bombs into the air. “What? What?” one girl shouted. And suddenly everyone on the plaza ran in all directions to try and catch a glimpse of an outdoor TV in one of the fully booked pubs. “England scored!!!” Then it started to rain. The crowd stayed out, throwing up rockets and cheering at random moments. “The kids are just celebrating, not watching the game,” one slightly older teen told his friends after he’d moved under a nearby cinema awning to livestream the game on his phone.
Outside London’s central bus station Sunday morning, a group of young men with overnight bags checked directions and walked down the road singing along to “Whole Again” by Atomic Kitten: “Baby you’re the one… you still turn me on…” The song, once the staple of Noughties girls magazine dance instructions, is now a fans’ ode to England’s soccer manager Gareth Southgate (“Southgate, you’re the one.”) Why Atomic Kitten? “Because it’s been 55 years apart,” said Sam, a 19-year-old student from Bath, after thoughtfully humming “looking back at when we first met…” In 1966, England won the World Cup—the country’s first major soccer trophy. They haven’t won anything since.
In the day, a huge crowd of mostly teenagers and young adults gathered at Leicester Square. At Trafalgar Square—the “official fan zone”—people needed public lottery-won tickets to enter a cordoned-off area surrounded by angry fans trying to break in. Before the game in the unofficial fan-zone, folks made some space for one man to throw a bright yellow traffic sign at another man, which the latter tried and failed to head-butt. Backed up against a candy shop stood a man with a rolled-up sleeping bag slung over one shoulder called Nathan, who said he was from the Shetland Islands and was here to “see life” and “meet people.”
“We saw it on social media,” said Bella, a petite 20-year-old with a thick West Country accent, referring to the video of a man waving an English flag while clinging to the side of a moving bus in northwest London.
At an evening performance of the male strip dance show “Magic Mike,” men gyrated on the stage, while half of the all-female audience got their phones out to watch the England goal. “It’s coming home,” some ladies sang over the early 2000s r&b music.
I also tried to speak to one of the large groups of men, clad in English flags or blazers and clutching beers, who were marching down the road outside Buckingham Palace, but the conversation was cut short when a man with an empty stare wrapped me into a headlock and sprayed me with the message: “Tell The Daily Beast,”—long pause—“IT’S. COMING. HOME!”