Sportswriting Competition 2012 – 2nd place:
England Till I Die
by Christine Steenfeldt
The square of concrete at the back of the pub’s dotted with men clutching their pints and dragging on their fags. A few of them look up as I open the door. No one says anything. No one has to. I’ve got a lump of misery in my chest that feels like a rock and so have they.
I have my smoke and chuck the stub on the floor. What hits me as I go back inside is the quiet. Someone’s turned the sound down on the telly but the joy on the Italian faces as they run around the pitch hurts just as much.
“Turn it over, Shania. Please,” I say to the barmaid.
Shania’s wiping down the bar with a grimy cloth. She puts it down, picks up the remote and presses the button with a sigh. ITV’s showing the highlights.
“This shouldn’t take long,” comes a voice. Nobody laughs.
I pick up my drink and look for my mate, Paul. He went to the bog just as Young’s penalty hit the crossbar. Couldn’t bear to watch.
“World Cup qualifiers start in September.”
I turn round and there’s this bloke standing next to me. He’s wearing a suit and he’s not from round here.
“Great,” I say. “Can’t wait.”
“Don’t be negative,” he says. “We could do it this time.”
I’ve just taken a swig of beer. I snort it out over the bar and Shania glares at me.
“Oh yeah. Because we’ve got a team of real world-beaters.”
“Give Hodgson a chance.”
“We should have had Redknapp.”
“You reckon it would make a difference?”
I think about it. “Nah, couldn’t do it if we dug up Ramsay and cloned him with Ferguson.”
“What would you give to see England win the World Cup?”
“What do you mean, what would I give?”
“Imagine it was in your power to make them win,” he replies.
“Like I was the manager?”
“Not exactly. Let’s say that if you wanted it badly enough, it could happen.”
I remember that film with the little dog and the wizard only I’m not wearing red shoes.
“Go on,” he says. “Close your eyes and imagine Gerrard holding the World Cup. How does it feel?”
Okay, so I’ve had a few pints and Paul’s not come back and all the other blokes are sitting, staring into their drinks and wishing we’d won. I close my eyes.
Gerrard’s holding the World Cup high over his head. There’s ticker tape streaming down and there’s a sea of red and white and a roar so loud, it’s deafening. I’m standing with thousands of other fans, watching on a large telly in the park. We’re hugging each other and screaming and grown men are crying with joy.
I open my eyes and he’s really close, staring at me. The rock that was in my chest has gone.
“I’d give anything for that,” I say.
“What’s anything?” the guy asks.
“I dunno. Job, flat, girlfriend.”
“That all?” he says.
“What else is there?”
“What about your soul?”
I laugh. “Okay, that as well!” He looks a bit funny then, like he’s thinking and then he sticks out his hand.
“I’m Nick, by the way.”
“Jason,” I reply and I shake his hand and it’s really weird. You know when there’s that, what’s it called, static in the air and there‘s a sort of tingling? He must have felt it too.
“Sorry, that’d be my lucky pulling pants,” he says. “They’re nylon.”
Then he turns round and leaves and the rock’s back.
Anyway, that was two years ago and we’ve got to fast forward. I’ve blown out my girlfriend, Kayleigh, because she slept with Paul. Then England qualifies for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and I win this amazing competition. I get to go to all the games, and hotels and flights are included. I’ve had to leave my job because they won’t let me have a month off in the summer and I’ve lost my flat. I’ve no one to take because of what Kayleigh and Paul did, so I’m on my own on a plane and there’s this bloke next to me. I think I know him but can‘t remember where from. Then we start talking and it’s Nick, from the pub. It turns out he’s won the same competition and he’s on his own as well so we decide we’ll stick together.
And it’s great. Well, you know what happens. Even if you hate football, you know how England does. We win every game. We annihilate Argentina. You’ve no idea how good that feels. Beating Germany, well, there’s no feeling like that, really sweet after what happened in South Africa. So when we get to the final, it’s like no other experience. Better than the best sex, better than winning the lottery.
Nick and I have rubbish seats but you should see the stadium. It’s called the Maracana and it’s like Wembley and the Nou Camp rolled into one. There are loads of England fans and we’re all singing England Till I Die with our hands on our hearts. Nick and I are behind the goal, right at the front so we can’t see everything but it’s still brilliant.
“What are you doing?” Nick asks. I’m rummaging around in my backpack. I’ve got cans of lager which you’re not supposed to take in but they’re really slack on security. And then I pull out the vuvuzela I got from a mate who went to the World Cup in South Africa. Nick smiles. “Are you going to blow that?”
“Maybe, if we win.”
“When,” he says. He’s such a smart arse. He pretends to know what’s going to happen before it does. Mind you, he’s been right most of the time.
We play well, really well. Brazil’s good, but we’re better. We go one up, the stadium goes mad. I’m feeling really nervous now. So close but it could all go wrong any minute. For a moment, I even wish we’d gone out earlier in the tournament, I feel so sick. At least the pain would be over by now.
Then it all comes crashing down. Gomez smacks this goal kick to the halfway line and Kaka’s there. Well he would be wouldn’t he? He takes it on his head and knocks it down and dribbles to the eighteen yard line. He aims it towards the left hand side of the net. Hart sees it coming but he’s too far over and it strikes the underside of the bar and it’s in! Just like that. It’s like the thirty-odd thousand England fans have a switch, and it’s been turned off. We just sit there and the Brazil lot, well they go mad. I don’t speak Brazilian but I guess they must be taking the mickey out of us. To be fair, we’d do it to them. But it still hurts and there’s only a couple of minutes of normal time left. Then the ref blows his whistle.
“Extra time then,” says Nick, like that’s not bleeding obvious.
“No penalties, please,” I say. But that’s what happens. We play rubbish in extra time and so do Brazil.
I don’t know if it’s a good thing, but the ref’s chosen the goal where we are for the shootout. I don’t want to see it go wrong right in front of my eyes. Maybe I’ll close them. Nick laughs. It’s like he knows what’s going to happen and he’s enjoying it.
“Ready to lose your soul?” he asks.
“You’ve lost your job, your girlfriend, your flat. Now it’s time for your soul.”
Of course, I’ve no idea what he’s on about but then I see this weird thing going on with his eyes. They’ve turned really dark, almost black and there’s red round the edges. Like eyeliner or something. And he’s staring into mine like he can see into my brain.
“You promised, remember? In the pub? You said you’d give your soul to see England lift the World Cup and then we shook on it. You made a deal.”
I think back to the pub and what we’d talked about.
“Well I didn’t mean it, did I? It’s just what you say.”
“But all this.” He’s waving his arm around at the stadium. “This is all down to you. I’ve made it happen because of what you said. And now it’s time to pay me.” He’s holding out his hand as if I can reach down my throat and pull out my soul and give it to him.
“You’re mad,” I say. But, I don’t know why, I’m scared. What if it’s true? What if I do have to give him my soul? I don’t want to, not even for this. And then I look around at all the England fans and I can see they’re praying, willing us to win. If it is true and I can get out of this deal, I’ll be letting them down. And all the fans back home. But I don’t care. I don’t want to die. Then I think of something.
“Why me?” I say. “Why me and not him?” I point at a fat bloke in the row behind us. He’s got sweat pouring down his face and there’s sick on the front of his England shirt.
“Because you care the most.”
“The most of what?” I want to punch him, he’s so smug.
“The most of all of them. I’ve watched you, Jason, over the years. I’ve watched how much you hurt when England loses. I’ve felt your pain, the agony you go through. You feel it more than any other England fan. That’s why.”
“But why now and not the last one in South Africa? I really wanted it that time but you didn’t turn up then with your magic handshake.”
Nick looks hurt. “Don’t blame me, blame Enriquez Herrera.”
“Spanish fan. He registered off the scale. I couldn’t turn him down.”
“And did he register off the scale for the Euros in 2008 too?”
“Don’t be stupid,” says Nick. “You can only lose your soul once.” He pauses.
“Actually, it was his dad, Enriquez senior.”
I wonder who lost their soul in 1966.
The shootout’s well under way, only I’ve missed most of it. I look up at the scoreboard. Brazil only has to put their next one in to win.
“Ha,” I say. “Looks like we’re going to lose after all.” I can hardly believe I just said that.
Nick smiles. “I wouldn’t want to make it too easy, would I? Hart saves Pato’s shot, Cole scores his. Game over, job done, soul lost.”
Hart’s on his line, Pato’s lining up to take it. Suddenly, I know it’s true. Nick is the Devil and I’m about to lose my soul. I also know that I don’t want to, whatever the reward.
It takes some doing but it’s amazing what you can do when you’re bricking it. The vuvuzela’s in my hand and I manage to jump over the barrier and then I’m five feet away from the back of the goal. Nobody’s noticed because eighty thousand pairs of eyes are on the Brazilian. Even the police and security guys are watching him. Just before Pato takes his run up, there’s this split second of silence, like everyone’s taking a breath before the screaming starts.
I fill my lungs and I shout, “Hart, behind you!”
The last thing I see is his head whip round before I put the vuvuzela to my lips and blow so hard I think my ears are going to explode. And I’m still blowing as the security guards push me to the ground, as the ball flies past Hart, and as fifty thousand Brazilian fans go absolutely crazy.