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Sunday, June 13, 2010
Updated: June 14, 5:37 AM ET
Spending time with England away

By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com

English Fans
England supporters cheer before the start of the World Cup match. They weren't cheering after.

RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- The bar was called Bulls. It was a rugby bar, named after the Blue Bulls, a provincial team from Pretoria, but today it would become a soccer bar. Today it would become an English bar filled with Englishmen. They would see it, and they would claim it. The bar was their territory.

And then the American college kids came in.

And then the police.

It was still morning when the ground was staked. Some boys from Grimsby, a dock town three hours north of London, were the first to spot it. They had a driver bring them up from Johannesburg with the instructions to find them a bar in Rustenburg, where England would play the U.S. later that night. Not that long ago, Rustenburg was considered too rough, too frontier for anyone but the bravest-hearted. Now the Grimbarians saw Bulls standing out among the shops, and they stopped the car.

They put up the first flag out front -- an English flag, a white flag with a red cross. It was a giant flag. They had brought it with them through Amsterdam and Nairobi to here, the way most English fans bring English flags when England's away. They will line entire stadiums with their flags, to which they have added the names of their hometowns, their professional allegiances, "Just Married" and messages to loved ones back home.

These boys had inked GRIMSBY into the red of the cross and added a Chelsea logo to the upper-right quadrant. In the bottom right, it read: HI MANDY.

"That's my missus," Keith Eddon said.

He bought the first round of Carling, and he stood outside Bulls on the sidewalk with his boys. There was Andy Graham -- like Eddon, a mechanical fitter at an oil refinery. There was Dave Short -- "Mr. Grimsby," he prefers, so Mr. Grimsby it is -- a fire hydrant of a man and a plumber by trade. There was a nameless taxi driver and a gentle-faced man missing his front tooth, and there, in the back, was a big man with a shaved head they had just met that morning, a solo traveler who had somehow found his way into the van. He was from London, but the driver had made the mistake of introducing him to the Grimsby boys as Irish. His real name was Bud Flanagan, but he had become Spud Murphy, the Irishman. It was as though he had been called Spud all his life.

They stood together in the sun in front of their flag, and more Englishmen began to arrive as though some mysterious signal had gone out. They pulled up by the carload and put up their own flags until the front of Bulls had vanished. Inside, a few locals tried to watch the rugby -- South Africa thumping France, which suited the English just fine -- but the struggle, really, was over. Bulls wasn't theirs anymore. Bulls was English.

They drank and they drank and they drank. It was a beautiful morning, and it became a beautiful afternoon. Glasses and bottles and cans littered the sidewalk, tipped over under the feet of maybe a hundred English fans, most in their crisp, white jerseys, green-ink tattoos on their forearms, smiles on their faces.

England fan
A fan shows his true colors.

"I've always wanted to come to Africa," Short said, "but I never dreamed I would."

In some ways, it was impossible that they were here, outside a bar in gritty Rustenburg. They were so far from home, and they do hard, dirty jobs. "Where there's muck, there's money," Short said, and the rest of them nodded. They had saved their money for four years -- since they had come back from Germany -- the way they will save it for the next four years until Brazil. This is it for the boys from Grimsby. Four years on, one month off. Soccer isn't life and death for them. It's life.

Short's trip had cost him a 12-year relationship on top of everything else. His girlfriend didn't want him to come. She was worried about the stories out of South Africa, and she didn't want him away for so long. Twelve divided by four meant that she had missed him three times before. But he bought his ticket, and that was it.

"Down the toilet," Short said. "Bye, Sherri."

Hi, Mandy. Bye, Sherri. Soccer is a serious thing.

Then another van pulled up. Out bundled the kids. They were draped in American flags; they had all of their teeth; one wore an oversized Uncle Sam hat.

The Englishmen booed and gripped their bottles a little tighter. "No Yanks allowed!" Eddon shouted. The kids smiled nervously and bowed their heads. But they walked into Bulls.

They took a seat at the back, in a corner. The girls behind the bar made some small, subtle switches. No more glass. Bottles and taps were poured into paper cups.

The college kids were good kids. They were smart kids, rich kids, American kids. They had names like Spencer and Nick and Philip. They were from places like Merrick, N.Y., and Cambridge, Mass., and Greensboro, N.C. They were getting college credit for coming to South Africa for the summer, following the American team across the country. They were never going to become mechanical fitters or plumbers. No one would ever confuse them with an Irishman.

"Some of those guys stared at me pretty hard," one of them said. It was as though walking into Bulls had been a rite of passage. They had graduated early.

The crowd continued to build. The bar was full. The sidewalk was jammed. It was still five hours before kickoff.

And then, over the top of the crowd: a bobby's helmet. A truck had pulled up outside, and South African police had pulled up and bundled out, followed by some English policemen. At first, the crowd thought they were English fans dressed up for the game. They were not. They were real.

There were six of them, led by a chief superintendent, David Lewis. They were invited here by the South African police -- the police who had waged pitched battles in Soweto, had put down riots with clubs -- because they knew that only English police could temper English fans.

Once, English police traveled abroad undercover. They don't do that much now. They have most of the hooligans under their thumbs. More than 3,000 of the worst offenders have found their way onto something called the football banning order list. They can't go to domestic games, and whenever England travels away, they have to report to the police and turn in their passports. That list, combined with the sheer expense of coming to South Africa, meant that the English fans standing outside Bulls, including the boys from Grimsby, were probably not going to cause any trouble. Probably.

"Are you intimidated by us?" Short asked. In the sunshine on the sidewalk, buying round after round, they were good company, the sort of men you would want on your side. But like the girls behind the bar who had stopped handing out glass and like the American college kids who sipped their drinks quietly in the back, not many people were going to come into Rustenburg and provoke a turn.

"There are signs we look out for," Lewis said. "There are certain songs, anti-German songs. Once those come out, we know. And if beer starts getting thrown about … that's a sign that trouble's about to start."

So far, the beer remained in the paper cups. The police drove off.

"England! England! England!" the boys began to sing.

The sun was going down. Three hours until kickoff. A South African staggered into the crowd and knocked over one of the few remaining glasses. It shattered on the sidewalk.

Beer had been spilled.

"You should buy him another beer," Short said to the South African, and Eddon agreed.

They didn't say it threateningly. They didn't say it meanly. They said it evenly, and the South African, the man who lived in the town where outsiders had been scared to come, nodded and headed straight for the bar. He didn't want any trouble. No one wanted any trouble. Everybody wanted to have a good time. Everybody wanted to drink and to sing and to win.

"England! England! England!"

But now the beer ran down the cracks in the sidewalk and into the gutter.

Hi, Mandy. Bye, Sherri.

It was time to go.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN the Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.