England Rejoices After Soccer Win
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LONDON (AP) _ After 16 years of misery, this was the sweet revenge England craved so badly.
From Buckingham Palace to pubs, factories and offices across the country, England celebrated Friday as its national soccer team beat archrival Argentina 1-0 at the World Cup in Japan.
The hero? None other than celebrity superstar David Beckham, who has gone from hated figure to national icon since the last World Cup four years ago.
England came to a virtual standstill as the game in Sapporo, Japan, kicked off at 12:30 p.m. local time.
Millions of people gathered to watch the game in city squares, shopping malls, offices and even churches. Huge TV screens were set up in public places for what newspapers described as ``the longest lunch hour in history.″
An estimated 6 million people _ one in every five employees _ stayed away from work to watch the match. In London, an Old Bailey judge even gave jurors in a rape case time off to follow the game.
Across the land, there was an explosion of joy as Beckham scored on a penalty kick to put England ahead 1-0 just before halftime.
After England withstood a surge of pressure from Argentina in the second half, much of the nation erupted in wild celebrations.
Fans piled into the streets chanting ``Eng-a-land, Eng-a-land,″ waving flags, dancing, hugging and honking car horns. In London, hundreds of revelers gathered in Trafalgar Square, with some splashing in the fountain around Lord Nelson’s statue.
There were reports of disturbances involving drunken fans in northeast England.
In Argentina, confetti fluttered in a wintry breeze as some 300 fans chanted ``AR-GEN-TINA!″ and cheered despite their team’s defeat. Some diehard fans in Buenos Aires clambered up streetlights to wave the country’s light blue and white flag. The game provided a brief respite from dour economic and political news.
``If only we had won!″ lamented one Argentine, Walter de la Rosa, 18. ``That would have given us so much joy, a break from reality because here there is no work and the people are suffering.″
In England, the celebrations were so wild you might have thought the team had won the World Cup instead of a first-round game. But the result means England now is in good position to qualify for the second round.
And beating Argentina is reason enough for a wave of national delirium in England.
English fans have never forgiven Argentina for Diego Maradona’s infamous ``Hand of God″ goal that knocked England out of the 1986 World Cup. While going up for a header, Maradona punched the ball with his hand past goalkeeper Peter Shilton in the quarterfinal in Mexico, but the referee didn’t see the violation.
Then, four years ago at the World Cup in France, Beckham was ejected for intentionally kicking Argentina’s Diego Simeone, and England, down to 10 men, lost in a penalty shootout.
In addition, the Falklands War is inevitably mentioned when the two countries play soccer. The 10-week conflict in 1982 left more than 700 Argentines and 200 British soldiers dead.
``England 1, Argentina 0...REVENGE″ ran the banner headline in London’s Evening Standard newspaper.
Damian Considine, 40-year-old owner of The Bull pub near City University in London, led the cheers as some 300 customers watched the game on four TVs.
``We played like lions,″ he said. ``Years and years of pain _ we made up for it.″
Byron Vale, a 26-year-old apprentice lawyer, was among hundreds of fans packing a bar in central London.
``It was the sweetest penalty I have ever seen,″ he said of Beckham’s goal. ``I don’t know many people who like the Argentines very much when it comes to soccer, so when we scored people were going absolutely crazy and hugging complete strangers.″
Within minutes of the final whistle, British bookmakers slashed the odds on England winning the World Cup. Bookmaker Ladbrokes cut England from 16-1 to 7-1, while William Hill’s odds went from 14-1 to 8-1.
Queen Elizabeth II, not known as a soccer fan, was kept abreast of the score as she visited an agricultural show in West Sussex. She was inspecting a bull wearing a Union Jack blanket when people started clapping and cheering as the game ended.
Buckingham Palace said the queen ``was pleased with the result.″
London streets were virtually deserted during the game.
Gareth Abbot, a stock trader at Marshall Securities Ltd. in London, said telephones in his office didn’t ring once throughout the game.
``Nothing at all,″ he said. ``Not a single sausage.″
The Center for Economic Research said absenteeism would cost the country $1.1 billion in lost output and productivity.
Bookies said they expected that $17.4 million would be wagered on the game, a record for a single soccer match. Ladbrokes even quoted odds of just 10-1 that Beckham would receive a knighthood this year.
What a difference four years can make.
In 1998, Beckham was the object of national vilification _ even hung in effigy _ after being blamed for England’s defeat to Argentina. Since then, the Manchester United midfielder has become the nation’s favorite sportsman and taken over as team captain.
Beckham and wife Victoria _ Posh Spice of the Spice Girls _ are now the most photographed and written about couple in the land.
Friday’s winning goal will only add to the national obsession with Beckham.
``It’s just unbelievable,″ he said after the game. ``It’s been four years, a long four years. This tops it all off.″
EDITOR’S NOTE _ AP reporters James Swanwick and Mike McIlvain contributed to this story.