They gathered beneath giant screens in London, packed out bars in Brussels, filled the Old Town in Dubrovnik and the Vieux Port in Marseille. They painted their faces and wrapped flags round their shoulders. They bought plastic glasses of beer to throw in celebration, or down in sorrow. They crossed their fingers, and they held their breath.
From early Tuesday morning until late Wednesday night, Belgium and France, England and Croatia came almost to a standstill, nervously anticipating the World Cup semifinals. Commuters donned national team jerseys to go to work. Shops closed, and bars opened, early.
For all that the world’s focus, for the last five weeks, has been on the multicultural carnival wheeling around Russia, the World Cup’s impact stretches far beyond the borders of its host.
For those countries that reach its latter stages, it becomes something that happens at home, a national fixation, certainly, no matter where it is held, sweeping along even those who have no interest in sports. It leads news bulletins and distracts politicians; it is all anyone talks about, and, in the long hours before kickoff, it makes time pass more slowly.
Over the last two days, in England, fans were encouraged to go to work on Wednesday wearing waistcoats in honor of the team’s manager, Gareth Southgate. One newspaper urged the ruling Conservative Party, currently embroiled in another bout of infighting, to lay down the cudgels for one day. “Don’t You Know There’s A Game On?” asked its front page.
In France and Belgium, the capitals’ subway authorities agreed to a bet: If France won, its national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” would blare from the speakers on trains in Brussels; if Belgium won, the station at Saint-Hazard in Paris would be renamed in honor of Eden Hazard, Belgium’s captain.
Croatia President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic presented the British prime minister, Theresa May, with one of the country’s famous checkerboard jerseys emblazoned with her name.
All of that, though, was just the buildup, a way of expending the nervous energy of anticipation before kickoff arrived. At that moment — Tuesday night for France and Belgium; Wednesday for England and Croatia — whole cities ground to a halt. Normally bustling streets and humming subway stations stood empty. Millions, at home and in public, were glued to televisions and giant video screens, to events unfolding thousands of miles away. Over the course of two evenings, four countries waited, and watched, as one.