Watching the World Cup and seeing so many national flags on cars has reminded me of my first trip to England in 1996 for a Games Workshop sales conference. I was new to the company and eager to make a good impression, and also very excited about my first journey overseas.
Meeting international colleagues was a real treat as well; people passionate about the same things you are, a lot of overlapping interests, an invariably great sense of humour, a lot of what my boss would call 'switched on blokes', and so on. That said, however, a lot of them were too distracted to worry about being good hosts, since the European Cup was not only going on at the time, but was actually being hosted in England, with some games being played right in Nottingham, where GW is headquartered.
After the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Euro Cup is the world's largest soccer event, with all the sportsmanship and international pride and rivalry this entails, both positive and negative. Bringing people together over a common passion is often a good idea, but sometimes pride or one-upmanship can drive people to do funny things, such as in 2006, when Dutch fans wore bright orange WWII-style German helmets to symbolize their 'invasion' of host nation Germany.
Well, all in good fun, one would hope, but, still.
At any rate, I have never been a huge soccer fan, enjoying scoring as much as I do, but the enthusiasm among my British colleagues was infectious. Far better than the events on field, however, were the challenges, taunts and boasts among the many nationalities present. The Americans, Australians and Canadians, having no dogs in this fight, were free to either sit back and watch the fur fly, or, if feeling impish, exacerbate things by misquoting other co-workers or simply lobbing easy meat into the crowd, like, "This is pretty much Britain's national sport isn't it? You guys must win international tourneys all the time, right?"
A statement like this was guaranteed to open up a row even if there were only British people present. If there were any German fans there, you were assured of hearing someone (often a lot of someones) quoting the announcer of the 1966 World Cup and his, "there's someone on the pitch...they think it's all over...well, it is now!" with a group usually chorusing in on the last four words.
There had been some minor trash talk going around the office before we boarded the buses for the West Retfords Inn, where the conference proper was being held. By the time we arrived there, you would have thought that soccer, sorry, football, was why we had come in the first place.
At registration, each participant was given a laminate showing their name, what division they worked in, and a flag denoting what country they were from. I walked away with mine, happy with how well my maple leaf had turned out, when I heard the person in line behind me say, in clipped tones, "What's this then?"
I turned to look, and saw Paul Sawyer, then editor of Citadel Journal, holding his laminate like a dead rat and showing it to the staffer handing them out. The staffer was not having any of it, so he simply answered, "What's wot?"
Paul tapped the Union Jack on his laminate. "This."
The staffer shrugged. "Everyone's got 'em, so we know who's from 'ere and who's, you know, Johnny Foreigner. You're from England, so.."
"That's right," interrupted Paul, smiling in a not entirely friendly fashion. "I am from bloody England. So you will get that Union Jack off there, sharpish, and put a proper English flag on there. It's not as if the bloody Cup isn't on, you know."
The staffer turned to his colleague, who shrugged in turn. "He's not wrong, you know. We do play Scotland on Sunday."
"All right then," said the first staffer agreeably. "One St. George's cross, coming up."
A moment later, a beaming Paul Sawyer, head held high, marched away from the registration desk, a proper English flag on his badge. This took him, not coincidentally, into the path of studio supervisor and Scotland backer for life, Gordon Rennie, who wasted no time accosting Paul with a grab of the arm and an interrogatory "Wot's all that then?"
Here we go again, I thought.
A moment later, Gordon had pushed his way to the front of the line and flipped his laminate at the staffer who had just re-done Paul's badge. Anyone who felt slighted took one look at Gordon's face, broken nose, creased brow and all, and thought better of mentioning it.
"I dunno why ye put the wrong flag on there, and I dinna care, but I'll gi' ye a chance t' fix it.," Gordon's burr proclaimed.
The staffer sighed. "I don't even know what the Welsh flag looks like, Gordie..." Looking up, Gordon's reddening face prompted a comment about some people not knowing a joke when they heard one, and two minutes later, Gordon walked away proudly, a St. Andrew's cross adorning the flag on his laminate.
Seeing the exchange, one of the American attendees whispered to me, "I hope I'm still here for that England v. Scotland game!"
I nodded, and whispered back, "Save me a seat at ringside."
The following day, I was in a seminar early in the morning, and as jet-lagged and hung over as we all were, we were all rapt with attention. Ronnie Renton, one of the legendary sales managers of the company, was telling us a very personal story about corporate dishonesty, and the importance of humility and doing the right thing, even in the face of failure. It was great stuff, and you could hear a pin drop when a knock came at the door near the end of his talk. He opened the door a crack, accepted a piece of paper that was passed through, nodded, and returned to his presentation.
When Ronnie finished, we all sat back in our chairs, stunned by what he had told us, deeply impressed by his courage in sharing it and all agreeing that it was a brilliant illustration of his point, when he said, "If there aren't any questions, in conclusion, I just want to say... England is going to the semis against Germany."
The place went apeshit. While the non-Europeans sought cover, all the Englishmen leapt from their seats, cheering and hooting, and eventually all joining in singing "One World Cup and two world wars, doo dah, doo dah..."
Well, this all came as quite a shock to the politically correct Americans and the quintessentially polite Canadians, but we were soon joining the irreverent Australians in enjoying the spectacle of the affair, and by the time we left the room, my sides ached from laughing.
There was no hooliganism, no serious repercussions, and in all, it was probably healthier than many North American sports rivalries I've seen (Edmonton? Calgary? I'm looking at you!). Despite the competitive nature of the affair, the tournament was a means of bringing people together from different parts of the continent, and many a pint was shared, and many a good play admired, whatever country it might have benefited. Maybe that's why they call it, 'the beautiful game'.
And by the time England played Scotland, Gordon and Paul were far too exhausted to do much more than watch quietly from the patio loungers of the hotel, side by side.