"Sports bars" in England are a different breed from their American counterparts. Last night, after a busy day at the Communication Workers Union Conference in Bournemouth, I was at what might more fittingly be called a football pub with some call centre workers and CWU Union reps, sitting in a cramped hallway and craning my neck for 90 minutes to watch Chelsea play Barcelona in the Champions League Semifinal. Guinness was the drink of choice for all but one of the men, and talk ranged from the current football match to other football matches.
It was a dramatic game. Chelsea came into it one goal up in aggregate score, but Barcelona put in two convincing goals in the first half. My new friends cheered somewhat ironically when Barcelona scored--they were from places like Liverpool and Warrington, and wanted to see the glossy Londoners put in their place by the (equally glossy) Spaniards. Graham, a call centre agent in his 60s, called Chelsea "a bunch of mercenaries," a pejorative which seemed to be the consensus. The only guy who openly supported Chelsea was John, an agent from Warrington who was my age and apparently had fewer layers of cynicism about British football.
In the second half, despite being one man down after Terry's kneeing a player in the back, Chelsea turned things around and tied it up 2-2 in aggregate score. Lionel Messi missed a chance to put Barce in the lead again when he smashed his penalty shot off the cross bar.
At the 80th minute, 10-man Chelsea subbed out striker Didier Drogba for Fernando Torres. Graham told me about how Chelsea bought Torres from Barcelona for 50 million pounds a few months back, and how Torres makes 50,000 quid a week for playing about 10 minutes every other game. I felt the injustice in the air as he said it, sitting with these call centre workers who work in pretty draconian conditions for something between minimum and what could be called a "living wage."
Two minutes into stoppage time, Chelsea played a long ball to Torres in space, and he beat the last defender, beat the keeper, and slotted it into the net to put Chelsea into the lead.
When the whistle blew a minute later, there was some sort of release, as if a dam of cynicism sprang a leak. Both John and Graham were smiling along with everyone else. The tensions were still there, but for a few minutes the older men were wide-eyed like John and me. As we sat there watching the postgame celebrations, we must have remembered why we came: for an hour and a half everyone in the room was allowed to care about something that doesn't matter. There was no singing in the streets in Bournemouth, but we all slept well that night.