SHEFFIELD, United Kingdom, Jul 10 – Football fever is sweeping England as its young team prepares for a World Cup semi-final showdown against Croatia, and nowhere more so than in Sheffield, the proclaimed birthplace of the modern game.
Around 150 miles (240 kilometres) north of London, the city has a rich football history that continues today.
Three players in the current squad — quarter-final goal-scoring hero Harry Maguire, defender Kyle Walker and forward Jamie Vardy — were raised there.
The English flag, known as the St George’s Cross, is omnipresent, flying from flats, cars and businesses throughout the formerly industrial so-called Steel City.
“It makes us feel proud of Sheffield knowing they come from here,” said Fitsroy Turner, 43, a construction worker.
Even a local priest is getting in on the enthusiasm, sporting a waistcoat — which England manager Gareth Southgate has made famous by wearing for every match — during Sunday mass.
For the first time in this tournament, the local council will show Wednesday’s semi-final on a 43-square-metre screen in the city centre with room for up to 10,000 fans.
The city will be celebrating its local heroes at the fan-zone under the banner “Made in Sheffield”, Richard Eyre, its head of major events, told AFP.
Software developer Jonas Bezzubovas, 24, said every England victory so far had been marked by hours of revelry, but Wednesday promises to be the biggest yet.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime match,” he said.
“I feel like the heat and the football have gone to people’s heads — it’s been madness here,” he added, referring to weeks of uninterrupted sunshine that has been warming usually rain-sodden English spirits.
– ‘It’s coming home’ –
England’s progress into the latter stages of the World Cup has been accompanied by ever-increasing chants of “It’s coming home” — the country’s resurrected theme song from the 1996 European Championships it hosted.
In this part of the world, home means Sheffield.
FIFA, world football’s governing body, recognises Sheffield FC — formed in 1857 and now playing in the eighth tier of English football — as the oldest club on the planet.
Apart from the three Sheffield-born players, four more members of the current England squad have connections to the city or surrounding county of Yorkshire.
“Sheffield is immensely proud of its footballing heritage,” said Mary Lea, a local cabinet member for culture, parks and leisure.
“Across the city, pubs and clubs have been packed into the early hours celebrating England’s successes.
“For Sheffield it really is coming home.”
Even the brass band that plays the national anthem and classic songs during the matches in Russia is from Sheffield.
– ‘Different feel’ –
Billy Hawsham, 63, maintains the rough-edged public housing complex in the neighbourhood where Kyle Walker grew up.
He recalled his son playing alongside the local hero at youth level — and the England player hitting golf balls over low-rise tower blocks as a kid.
Hawsham credits the laid-back ethos of the Yorkshire-heavy squad with helping to create “more euphoria this time than in any other tournament.
“There’s a different feel to it with this younger side and no superstars,” he said of the current crop, compared to past teams featuring the likes of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney.
Howard Holmes, a 71-year-old youth worker turned coach who helped discover Walker, said he was not surprised the region was producing talented players given its football pedigree.
“You’re right at the fulcrum of where football started,” he said at the pitch-side offices of Football Unites Racism Divides (FURD), the empowerment organisation he founded in 1995 just south of the city centre near the historical home of Sheffield FC.
– Rivalries put aside –
In a city where bitterness between its two biggest clubs — Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United — can turn violent on derby day, locals have welcomed the unity around England.
“It’s nice to see the rivalry put aside,” said Simeon Briggs, who manages a booming bar in the centre next to Wednesday’s planned big screen site.
In nearby Mosborough, where Harry Maguire hails from, his local pub has turned its car park into a fan-zone decked out with two large screens, flags — and plenty of beer on tap.
David Hoyland, 47, the general manager of the British Oak Alehouse, said the pub — where Maguire’s parents are still regulars — does not usually show football but is making an exception.
He estimates around 2,000 fans packed the place on Saturday to see the team advance past Sweden, sinking 3,000 pints and hundreds of cocktails in the process.
Reflecting the swelling local pride, Hoyland added: “Someone came by Sunday and said it was the best day of his life.”