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Fear the Wall Travel Blog: My Sense of the World Cup in Europe

Alternatively, “when Sean met Paul”

Source: ME!

You may have noticed that over the first week of the World Cup, things have been a little slow around Fear the Wall. Part of this is because BVB are on hiatus and we don’t typically cover international football very much, but another part of that is that I spent the last week traveling in Europe. My fellow Fear the Wall writer Paul was gracious enough to host me at his flat in London while I was visiting my brother, who is studying abroad for a semester at Queen Mary University. In the middle of the week, my brother and I also took a three-night detour in Paris.

This article is not a travel blog. I don’t want to bore you all with every single item from my itinerary last week. Instead, I want to focus on the World Cup in Qatar. To say that this tournament has been mired in controversy would be a massive understatement. Discourse surrounding the abuse of migrant workers, anti-LGBT rights, bribery allegations in FIFA, and more have given this tournament a distinctly negative image, and rightfully so. and many, including myself, have wondered whether the controversy would impact people's interest in the tournament. My fellow writer Anders has already made the decision to personally boycott the World Cup, and I suspect many others are joining him.

As my brother and I roamed the streets of London and Paris, two capitals of world football, I tried to get a sense of how the locals and the thousands of other folks from around the world who were visiting felt about the World Cup. I was in Europe for the first week or so of the group stage, and tried to watch as many matches as I could, so I think I got a good idea about how both the people of London and Paris feel about their national teams and the World Cup in general. I won’t go into every match that I watched, but here’s a sample of a few different matches that I got to be around for.

Sunday: Qatar vs. Ecuador

Being the masterful Public Relations machine that they are, FIFA kicked off the tournament with a clash between two global football superpowers that would be sure to draw the eyes of millions of neutrals around the world: Ecuador and Qatar. You could imagine my surprise when the areas of London I walked through were business-as-usual, with some Pubs not even bothering to turn on TVs to air the game. There was some watch party, probably a sold-out crowd at Wembley Stadium, that I was not privy to.

That sarcasm might betray my feelings toward Qatar, but I also feel like I need to absolve Ecuador a bit. Although Ecuador isn’t exactly a world-beater (ranked 44th in FIFA’s Men’s Rankings), they are at the very least an actual country with an actual, non-migrant-worker population with a history of footballing fandom. There weren’t many, but I did see a few Ecuador shirts around London that morning. The same can’t be said for Qatar. I suppose its non-migrant worker population of roughly 800,000 had its hands full back in the homeland.

We eventually settled in a pub in Kensington that was airing the game. It was not, as it turned out, packed with jumping and screaming Qatari fans, or Ecuador fans, or... anybody for that matter. About half the tables were filled; one man preoccupied with some kind of writing project on his laptop, another group of older folks enjoying some wine while occasionally commenting on the game, and a few folks from the kitchen staff who would emerge periodically to check the score of the game. One such gentleman seemed to take joy in Qatar falling behind and was adamant that the controversial offside call was legitimately a Qatari attempt to rig the game, but other than him, the reactions ranged from completely indifferent to nought but the occasional glance.

Alas, it would seem that the opening act of FIFA and Qatar’s vanity project did not win over the hearts and minds of the people of London. But what of the next day’s match, with much more at stake?

Monday: England vs. Iran

England’s opener against Iran on Monday was viewed by 8.1 million people on the BBC. This may sound like a lot, but it’s over 10 million fewer people than England’s opening match against Tunisia during the 2018 World Cup. This can be partially explained with the knowledge that the 2018 match took place in primetime on a Monday night, while the 2022 match took place in the middle of a work day. Even taking that into account, though, it’s a staggering drop-off, and I definitely did sense a bit of a muted atmosphere, at least relative to what I expected.

I’m still not sure exactly what I expected, either; whether it was cars honking in the street with every goal, the Cross of St. George lining the street everywhere I walked, or fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder in public squares, but what I saw around South London was definitely not what I had expected. I spent a few hours around the neighborhood of Brixton that morning, and solely from the atmosphere, I wouldn’t have known that England were going to play in a World Cup game that day!

To actually watch the game, Paul and I were at a pub near his flat, and although the pub had only recently re-opened, so might not have been on many peoples’ radars, I was still surprised at how few people were there. I still had a great time, and with the Three Lions running roughshod over Iran, the people who were there were in good spirits, having also consumed many, many good spirits.

Tuesday: France vs Australia

My brother and I took a late-night train ride to Paris on Monday night, attempting to watch USA vs Wales on our smartphones using the Eurostar’s shitty Wi-Fi, which managed to achieve the impossible by making Amtrak look good by comparison. On Tuesday, after speedrunning all the main tourist attractions in Paris (according to my brother’s phone, we walked 12 miles in 6 hours), we decided to find a place to watch France play Australia. It was an evening match, so we figured the city would be alive for it. To my relief, this was the case, because almost every café, bistro, and bar we passed was in the process of setting up TVs for the game. I could sense that the city was genuinely excited about the match.

We eventually found ourselves at a bar in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, an area of Paris close to numerous universities, that is thereby fairly popular with students. To be fair, the bar we attended was pretty packed, as were all the student bars in the immediate vicinity. The young fans in the crowd were very loud and passionate; by far the best atmosphere I’d seen to that point. Apparently, our writing software doesn’t support MP4 files, but if you’re interested, on the Fear the Wall Discord, I posted a moderately embarrassing video of myself at this bar singing along to La Marseillaise, where you can get a sense of the atmosphere at the bar.

So the World Cup in Qatar proved that, in prime time, it could get the notoriously non-patriotic people of France to support their national team. Point Infantino.

Wednesday: Germany vs Japan

On Wednesday, my brother and I spent the morning roaming the Palace at Versailles before returning to Central Paris to try to find a place to watch Germany play Japan. This proved to be surprisingly difficult; we bounced from restaurant to bar to café around the area of the Place de la République, but not a single place was airing the World Cup. This included four or five Japanese restaurants. I found this pretty surprising; Paris has a small but non-negligible Japanese immigrant population and is a fairly popular tourist destination for Germans.

We did eventually find a Doner Kebab place (to be fair, a staple of German cuisine) with one tiny TV perched on the wall airing the game, where my brother and I were able to witness Die Nationalelf shoot themselves in the foot by giving up two goals to Japan in the final 15 minutes to lose the game, as one bemused fan chuckled to himself into his pile of fries.

Thursday: Brazil vs Serbia

Thursday was Thanksgiving, and after traveling back to London and trying (and failing) to find any restaurant in the entire city that would serve us some goddamn Turkey, we settled at a pub near Queen Mary University and the classic Thanksgiving dish known as Pizza Diavola. That evening’s match was Brazil vs Serbia. Not too many people seemed that interested other than a table of students in Brazil shirts, and a group of Arsenal fans who were very happy when Gabriel Jesus was subbed on, and mistook me, a Spurs fan, applauding Richarlison coming off on a hat trick, as me applauding along with them. That was an awkward moment.

So, after all of the above, I was feeling pretty strongly that, generally speaking, the people of London and Paris were not quite as passionate about this World Cup as I would have expected for an international tournament. While the Parisiens had turned out in force for France-Australia, almost every other match was practically impossible to find.

Friday: The Main Event

But none of these matches were as big as the one on Friday. England versus the United States in the World Cup, in prime time. If any single match of the group stage was going to pack the houses around London, it was this one. The location we chose was a pub in South London, and while not exactly packed shoulder-to-shoulder like pubs were elsewhere, every single seat at every single table within the viewing area was taken.

Despite the reputation that English fans have, I can’t stress enough that everybody else at the pub was 100% friendly, even though I was openly wearing a USMNT shirt. I expected at least somebody to give me some shit, or at least some banter, but that wasn’t the case: the most I got was a “good luck,” and the bartender (who may have been Scottish) telling me that I was brave for wearing it.

As you all know, the game was mostly uneventful. The USMNT spent most of the match on the front foot, if not exactly racking up major chances. England played conservatively, much to the annoyance of the Three Lions fans in attendance. The USA played well enough that my brother and I were disappointed in a draw as well. Regardless of the result, we had a blast and everyone was left smiling:

Clockwise from the left: Paul’s partner Natalie, myself, my brother Chris, Paul’s friend Adam, Paul’s friend who is also named Paul, Paul’s friend Roberto, Paul’s brother Owen, and Paul

In Conclusion

So obviously I’ve just dumped a bunch of my anecdotal impressions on you guys, and at the end of the day, they could be completely off base. When the World Cup has ended and the TV ratings are all released, we will get a better idea of what the complete picture looks like. It could very well be that this World Cup is just as popular as in prior years. England’s match against the USA certainly set a record in America, but I haven’t been able to find any ratings over in the UK or France. There are signs that interest is waning elsewhere; ratings in Germany have plummeted this world cup,

I’d love to hear what you guys think so far. Wherever you are in the world, is the hype for the World Cup what you would have expected? Are people more excited? Less excited? Let me know your thoughts.

Before I go, I really do want to publicly thank Paul and his partner Natalie for hosting me. They really went above and beyond, allowing me to crash on their couch for five nights, and inviting my brother and me to watch England play the USA at a pub in London. One great thing about Fear the Wall is that I’ve been able to meet people that I never would have otherwise had the chance to meet. Hopefully, I’ll get to meet many more of you all in the future!