For the British expat armchair sports fan, time abroad is full of frustration. Life sometimes feels like an endless sequence of thwarted television-viewing ambitions, punctuated only occasionally by the highs and lows that are available daily to fans at home.
The problem is one of access. Here in Switzerland we can receive television from several countries but inexplicably the Swiss, Austrians, Italians and Germans all fail to show either cricket or English football. Do these people not realise what they are missing? French television does at least broadcast rugby and I am immeasurably grateful for that.
In this internet age, scores and results are instantly available but the obsessive sports fan always needs more. At about £3 per issue, British newspapers are a rare luxury and usually a day out of date. The lacklustre European editions available here are scarcely cheaper and leave out half of the content.
Consequently, my daily fix of British sports news has to come from the internet. After taking 20 minutes to read three newspaper articles online between the pop-up ads and subscription messages I either scream in frustration or decide to fork out £3 for the printed version. The honourable exception is the fast and reliable BBC website. Judging from the number of articles on expat life in recent months, they have realised that there is a significant market, even if it consists of people who don’t pay the licence fee.
Before I wallow too deeply in self-pity, I must acknowledge that I am fully aware of possible remedies for my affliction. Several acquaintances have ingeniously installed Sky. To do so in a private property is illegal and expensive so I have ruled it out until I become yet more desperate. One day I will sort out a fast internet connection at home, which will enable me to listen to British radio stations and to flick through the maddening newspaper websites more often. This may relieve the symptoms but it will certainly not cure the underlying malaise.
In reality there is only one answer to my prayers. Where I live it is called the “Great Escape” but elsewhere it might be the “King’s Head” or “Rosie O’Grady’s”. It is, of course, the local expat pub, that monument to Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony. In every town in continental Europe from Bordeaux to Budapest you will find it, brazen, unrepentant and irresistible.
It is a remarkable British and Irish export success story. You know it from its name, from the Guinness signs and from the noisy crowd within. But most of all you know it from the magic words “English Football” displayed outside.
The ingredients are not complicated: a dark, wooden interior, draught beer in pint glasses, a dartboard, a raucous juke box, and a big screen on which to show Sky Sports. Australian bar staff add another dash of authenticity. The Irish theme is an optional extra. It generally requires a name starting in “O’ ” and a few of those unconvincing “Tipperary 5 miles” signs which are presumably mass-produced in Hong Kong.
Mix these elements together and you can be sure that the crowds will come. The largest group are the “locals”: Britons and other English-speakers who are in town for a year or two. They may work in multi-nationals or at the international school. Others are studying at the local university. For the most part there are groups of men, perhaps with a girlfriend dragged along unwillingly. The braver type of au pair may also turn up, usually with a sidekick.
A couple of over-sized regulars prop up the bar, pint in hand, and then there are the Lonely Planet generation: couples on a long weekend, taking a break from sightseeing. Often there are a few genuine natives, young and confident, who mix easily in the English-speaking environment.
The guidebook reference and the central location are critical to catch the passing trade. Increasingly, this includes the stag and hen parties whose preferred formula for 2004 consists of easyJet/Ryanair flight plus random European town plus dodgy hostel plus many cheap beers.