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Sun 11 Jun 2006

Paraguayans suffer very Scottish defeat

ALISTAIR MCKAY

THERE are advantages to watching an England game in a Spanish flamenco restaurant with the fans of Paraguay.

The pre-match commentary is drowned out - so instead of hearing Gary Neville drone on, you can enjoy the fiery guitar.

But it felt strange, after a journey across a traffic-free London on the hottest day of the year, to descend into the Nueva Costa Dorada, in a side street off Tottenham Court Road, to enjoy the biggest day of the English sporting calendar from the opposition benches.

While the BBC's loop of World Cup film - the one involving Geoff Hurst and the Russian linesman - rolled, it was tempting to embrace the dreams of the restaurant's Paraguayan owner, Clara Sanchez, who had left a wine list on every table.

It listed six brands of champagne, and two of Cava. Sanchez was dressed in the red and white stripes of Paraguay, and told me before kick-off that she was optimistic.

"Football is very big in Paraguay. Even though it is a small nation, a small team, we have a good time this year. England have a bigger population to choose from. We are a small country. But we will fight to the end. We hope it's a good game, and everybody plays well. That's all we hope for."

The Nueva Costa Dorada holds an Independence Day party for London's small Paraguayan community every year in May, and she wanted the World Cup to be a similar celebration of national pride. "You never know," she said. "There's no small enemy in football."

Gustavo Vazquez, who has been a student in London for the last four years, was less upbeat.

"We hope to win, but I don't think so. If we can get a draw, that would be nice. The English team is very strong, so we are second favourite. But hopefully we will do our best."

Moments before the kick-off Gustavo had phoned his family in Paraguay to make sure they had woken in time for the game. Tactically, he expected a tight contest. "We play 4-4-2 - it's more like the English game than the traditional South American way. But football is important in Paraguay, you play on the streets, everywhere, all the time."

His friend, Mariangela Pratt, had much at stake. "I've got an English boyfriend. We have a bet on the table. Whatever team wins, the other person has to cook for two weeks. I hope I win," she said, adding a slight worry about the standard of her boyfriend's artistry in the kitchen.

"He's not a good cook, but he's gonna have to be when I give him the recipes. We won't be having fry-ups every day. We're gonna have proper meals."

By kick-off, the restaurant was full. It was a family occasion, with everyone clad in red and white striped tops. Polite applause greeted 'God Save The Queen', with a boisterous welcome for the Paraguayan anthem, though the acoustics of the room made it hard to tell whether the lyrics really did say: "I will win, I will die, I will die for you, Paraguay." It sounded like that.

And then, after three minutes, an oddly Scottish sensation as the Paraguayan defence donated a goal. What little air there was in the summer heat of the club quickly evaporated.

From that point, the first half was a distracted affair, with girlish screams whenever Beckham touched the ball, and thunderous applause as Steven Gerrard was booked.

Then, after 43 minutes, an odd and joyous thing: Paraguay scored. The place went wild. Flags were waved, arms punched the air. Grown men hugged their wives and kissed their children, and a Penelope Cruz lookalike started knocking out a rhythm on a conga drum.

All of which was slightly odd, because the records of the game show that no goal was scored at all. The Paraguayans had been celebrating a near miss. Or just possibly, the Nueva Costa Dorada had slipped into a time warp of magical realism.

But still, they fought. The conga drum burst into life sporadically, and by the 52nd minute, chants of "Paraguay! Paraguay!" were ringing round the room. When the noise dropped, the moaning of Mark Lawrenson could be heard: "Keep the ball," he was saying, "keep the ball". England were winning, but they were not winning well.

In the end, the patient optimism of the Paraguayan support turned into frustration. There were howls of derision as the face of Wayne Rooney flashed across the screen. After 77 minutes, a Paraguayan wave was attempted.

The record books will show that the dreams of Anibal Ruiz's red and white army counted for nothing. It was a Scottish result - a moral victory - enlivened by a dream of a goal.

Brown plays the game... for England

HE MAY have aroused some suspicions when he confirmed that he would be supporting England in the World Cup, but Gordon Brown spent yesterday striving to prove that he really has more than a passing interest in the fortunes of the football team.

Brown, who has been in St Petersburg since Friday, for a meeting of the G8 finance ministers,

opened himself to condemnation from fellow Scots last week when he offered his goodwill to the England team.

SNP leader Alex Salmond taunted him that he was desperate to be an Englishman. "Even now," he said, "the Chancellor spends long hours at the Treasury trying to memorise the names of the England football team."

But the abuse failed to discourage Brown who, unlike Prime Minister Tony Blair, can at least argue that he is a lifelong football fan.

Originally, he had hoped to get back to London in time for the 2pm kick-off against Paraguay. Managers at Heathrow had arranged for him to watch the game in their VIP lounge.

Unfortunately, he could not get a flight back in time so he phoned ahead to have the match recorded for him - and spent the rest of the time trying to avoid being told the score.

VisitScotland cheers Auld Enemy

IT IS a piece of Scotland in the heart of the auld enemy, so it might be expected to maintain the traditional hostility towards the English and their team.

But VisitScotland's London office, just off Trafalgar Square, in the shadow of Nelson's Column, has taken a novel approach to Anglo-Scottish relations during the World Cup. Scotland's tourist chiefs in the English capital are officially supporting David Beckham and his team.

And this isn't just a grudging type of support offered through clenched teeth: they are advertising the fact with a huge "Good Luck England" poster filling an ornate window. "We are in England, after all," explained office director Casia Zajac. "We have English staff, so why wouldn't we support them?"

This is not simply about good old-fashioned neighbourliness, however, as there are sound business reasons for the enthusiastic support.

Amid the furore over whether Scotland could bring itself to support England, the benefits of good relations with the English have often been overlooked. The latest figures reveal that English tourists make 7.8 million trips to Scotland every year, staying 33.4 million nights and spending more than £2bn. English visitors, in fact, cough up 46% of the overall tourist expenditure in Scotland.

"Obviously, it's important that our English visitors perceive us as friendly and hospitable," Zajac added. "Our role in London is to encourage them to go to Scotland."

Although the "Good Luck" poster may have to come down eventually, staff happily admit that there is a replacement if England win the World Cup, saying: "Well Done England."

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