Much was made of the estimate that 30 million people would tune in to watch England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden. But, if that was true, half the country weren’t watching the match.
A decent chunk of those – around 40,000, including Sir Bobby Charlton, a hero of the 1966 team – were at the Wimbledon tennis championships, and it made for a surreal atmosphere on the middle Saturday of the tournament.
Wimbledon has a resolute no-football policy, even for Sir Bobby. It’s not shown on the big screens, there are no announcements over the PA system.
There was even a warning ahead of Saturday’s football that spectators could be asked to leave the court by stewards if they were seen following the match on mobile phone or tablet. “We’ve been told it disrupts the play,” said a steward. Then conspiratorially, under his breath: “But how are we going to tell, sir?”
On Centre Court at 3pm, as the match kicked off in Samara, Rafa Nadal was dispatching the young Australian Alex De Minaur in their third-round match. There were a few empty green seats, but not the mass exodus many had predicted, and the All England Club must have secretly feared.
Charlton, for one, wasn’t going anywhere. There were some telltale headphones, but when Harry Maguire headed England in front after half an hour there was barely a ripple.
One of those who decided to stay at the tennis was Dean Roberts from Brentwood in Essex. Most Centre Court tickets for the middle Saturday cost £102 and are assigned almost a year in advance by ballot. “When I realised the clash, I thought for a minute I should sell them on,” said Roberts, who wore an Italia ’90-era England shirt. “But the tickets were hard to come by, so we decided against it.” Not all fans made the same decision.
Nick Holt and Jack Castledine were part of a big group who had come to Wimbledon for the day from Bolton. They had tickets for Centre and No 1 Court, but left their seats at 2.30pm to watch the football at the Dog & Fox pub in Wimbledon village.
“I love Wimbledon, it’s my favourite two weeks of the year,” said Holt. “But the World Cup’s every four years, and I couldn’t say no to a quarter-final.”
“It’s a joke they don’t show it here,” added Castledine. “It’s that question of whether tennis is a sport for the masses or whether it is elitist, isn’t it?”
Wimbledon actually has shown football on the large screen before, but not since England hosted Euro 96. Since then, however, first Tim Henman and then Andy Murray have transformed British interest in tennis.
Football may be taking its sweet time coming home, but for tennis it was an even longer trip: when Murray won his first Wimbledon title in 2013, it had been 77 years since the last success for a British man.
“We think people recognise they are at a tennis event,” said Richard Lewis, chief executive of the All England Club, explaining the Wimbledon stance on football. “It has always been an accepted policy. It has worked very well for us and never proved controversial.”
Lewis might not consider it controversial, and on Saturday it worked perfectly, certainly for the BBC. England won the football and the match finished in perfect time for Britain’s Kyle Edmund taking on Novak Djokovic.
But the issue is not going away. Next Sunday the Wimbledon men’s final, which begins at 2pm, could well clash with the World Cup final, which kicks off at 4pm. Already there is speculation about what might happen if England makes the final. “From ballkids to security to volunteers,” tweeted Sport Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim, “how many will fail to show for work?”