Offside, 15 March

Magistrates must be the only people in Britain who don't think the World Cup is a special occasion.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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It’s bad enough that we in Britain will have to get up at some ungodly hour to watch the 2002 Japan/Korea World Cup.

To make matters worse, England have been drawn in the ‘Group of Death’ along with Argentina (while the Germans, having scraped through to the finals via the back door of the play-offs, somehow landed an easy group). Alas, now we face a triple whammy because it seems that British pubs could be shut, too.

We might be living in the twenty-first century, but Britain’s licensing laws remaining firmly stuck in the nineteenth. If publicans want to open in the morning, when two of England’s World Cup group matches kick off, they must apply for special licences. However, when Maurice Fermoy, who runs the Buck and Bell pub in Banbury, applied to Bicester magistrates’ court for an early licence in February 2002, he was flatly refused.

Moreover, the Magistrates’ Association has issued guidance to its members advising them not to grant early licences. ‘As far as the association is concerned we do not see watching football on TV as a special occasion’, said a spokesman for the joyless pecksniffs. ‘Magistrates must be about the only people in the country who don’t view the World Cup as a special occasion’, said the British Beer and Pub Association (though I guess the Scots, who didn’t qualify, might prefer to go curling this year).

Apparently, magistrates are bound by a 1978 High Court ruling that stopped pubs opening late during the World Cup in Argentina. It is funny how times have changed since 1978. Back then, when teddy boys still roamed the streets of Britain, nobody watched football in pubs. In fact, live football on TV in any shape or form was as rare as rocking horse shit because the football authorities, afraid that fans would vacate the terraces for the comfort of their armchairs, would not permit it. (The first time an English league match was shown live on TV was 1983.)

The 1990 World Cup was one of the key moments in football’s renaissance: Gazza cried and the Germans won on penalties. And yet I watched the semi-final on my own at home. There were no big TV screens in pubs until BSkyB, a pay-TV channel, started broadcasting live Premier League games in 1992 (1). Pub landlords took advantage of the fact that only a minority of households subscribed to Sky Sports and started showing Premiership matches in pubs. Thirty thousand pubs and clubs were receiving Sky Sports by 1996 (2): the year that the nation discovered the thrill of watching international football collectively in pubs during the Euro ’96 tournament.

It is easy to see the attraction of watching a big game with friends in a pub rather than sitting on the sofa at home. But, even compared to today’s all-seater, family-friendly, hooligan-free football stadia, pub crowds are often noisier and more boisterous. In a pub you can drink while watching the game; in a football stadium it is illegal to drink alcohol within view of the pitch.

During the 1998 World Cup I watched England’s epic clash with Argentina in a Brixton pub. It was wild. When Sol Campbell appeared to have scored the winner, the whole pub erupted: beer glasses went flying, people danced on tables, strangers hugged each other and, when they realised that the goal had been disallowed, they screamed abuse at the TV screen. How perverse that such behaviour is no longer tolerated inside a football stadium!

It is unthinkable that we might be forced to watch the World Cup at home with a mug of tea and a bowl of cornflakes (the alternative is to go to Northampton where magistrates have granted licences to eight local pubs (3)). But all is not yet lost. The brewery firm Scottish and Newcastle, which owns 1450 pubs, is taking a case to the High Court to challenge the absurd booze ban. ‘Supporters can order a drink whenever they want in Europe, so why not here?’, said a spokesman for the brewers. Hear, hear, I’ll drink to that.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Fact Sheet 8: British football on television, Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research, University of Leicester

(2) Fact Sheet 8: British football on television, Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research, University of Leicester

(3) Northampton magistrates flout world cup beer ban, 7 March 2002

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Topics Politics


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