England is a nation unified and deliriously divided.
The world’s best tennis players typically own center stage during these two weeks of Wimbledon. But this year, they have stepped to the edge of the spotlight for the country’s surprising soccer team, which has advanced to the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1990.
A spot in Sunday’s final is up for grabs Wednesday when England plays Croatia in a showdown that has this nation transfixed. As a result, Wimbledon officials are forced to relax their rigid rules of Centre Court that hold that spectators must switch off their phones and devices during play. When England is playing a World Cup game, tennis fans in those prime seats will be allowed to follow on their phones and tablets as long as they don’t disturb the people around them.
Think of the swiveling heads — side to side, down to the phone, up to the heavens — as Wimbledon’s new sign of the cross.
Without question, this is a religious experience for a nation of crazed soccer fans, 19.4 million of whom tuned in Saturday to watch England defeat Sweden 2-0. That accounted for an 87.7% share of the country’s TV audience. The prayer in the households, rollicking pubs of London and beyond is that this young team can match the feat of England’s 1966 version and win it all.
“It’s just a yearning and a wanting that sort of seeps into the collective consciousness,” said Paul Eden, a London-based advertising executive who followed that championship team as a child. “The nation always thinks that 1966 is going to happen again.”
“What’s Wimbledon?” said Sean Fairless, proudly sporting a light blue England jersey while walking along London’s South Bank. “Haven’t been watching the tennis much. Priority is football right now.”
The success of this team has revived “Three Lions,” a pop song from 1996 whose title comes from the emblem of the England football team. The refrain — “Football’s coming home” — has become a rallying mantra and Internet meme that shows up just about everywhere.
“It’s interesting because when I’m here in London, Wimbledon, it’s the atmosphere, seeing all the English just get so excited,” said American Serena Williams, who has won Wimbledon seven times. “You can’t help but root for the team.”
On that, not everyone agrees.
“I hope we not lose to English,” said Goran Ivanisevic, a former Wimbledon champion from Croatia who will be pulling for the other team in Wednesday’s semifinal. “Because you’ve already won, you’re in the final, you’re coming home, you’re bringing the trophy. You’re so arrogant. You’re the best. You’re the most beautiful.
“Sure, you’re coming home. But I hope you’re not bringing the trophy.”
Ivanisevic is in the extreme minority in these parts. On Saturday there were large sections of empty seats at Centre Court, normally a hot ticket, and Bobby Charlton, hero of that 1966 team, disappeared from the royal box for a chunk of time while England was building its two-goal lead. The speculation was he left to find a TV in the members’ area.
It doesn’t help Wimbledon’s cause that there are no British players remaining in the tournament. In fact, two-time winner Andy Murray pulled out because of hip problems before play began.
What’s more, soccer — or football — is regarded as far more of an accessible sport for the masses.
“With the football, everyone’s hyped and there’s a lot of patriotism,” said Samantha Wells, a sleep technologist who took off work Tuesday to picnic on Henman Hill and watch tennis. “I think you need to be into the tennis to go and watch it. Tennis is usually during the day. If you’re at work, you’ve really got to make the effort. Football is on the weekends. There’s no harm in you popping down to the pub with some friends to watch.”
But she added: “The football fans, they can get a little out of hand. You get a lot of hooligans and stuff. … Have a drink and enjoy your sport, but don’t go do vandalism. Tennis is a bit more serene.”
“I’m more concerned the World Cup final will have issues because the Wimbledon final is going on,” he said with a slight smile. “They’ll hear every point — ‘Wow, love-15, 15-30.’ The players are going to look up in the crowd and not understand what’s going on at Wimbledon.”
With the sports intersecting and anticipation building, this much is clear: The fun never sets on the British Empire.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer