Tea – best drink of the day, not a diplomatic issue

LOOSEN-up Lioness fans, Alex Morgan was merely poking fun, not hurling an insult to a nation. Football is a game that provokes such gestures of mockery, cricket thrives on “sledging” and players lift t-shirts to reveal messages after they score. It’s a product for the masses, a simple game that has no halfway measures in competitions like World Cups – win or lose. Emotions get out of control.

Celebrating goals and victories has been part of the game since it began – from gentlemanly handshakes to elaborate choreographed tableaux when a goal is scored. Some of the reactions to Morgan’s sipping tea gesture have been ridiculous, suggesting England should respond next time by re-enacting a school shooting. This is probably coming from the same people who parade a flag over their facebook image when a major incident takes place around the world. Conspicuous grieving like “pray for France” and all that.

USA’s Alex Morgan celebrates scoring her side’s second goal of the game during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Semi Final match at the Stade de Lyon. Photo: PA

Laughing at oneself is something that has characterised Englishness over the years, although it seems to be a trait that is disappearing as taking offence becomes a lifestyle choice. Indeed, there is currently a TV ad where the ubiquitous Olivia Coleman sums up Britain with the comment, “rather a lot of tea”. She may be right, after all, when anything went wrong, the immediate response used to be “let’s have a cup of tea”. It has taken the nation through many crises and major events.

Tea was always drunk at half-time in football matches – remember the photo of Spurs players arguing with Bill Nicholson in the early 1960s with tea cups in hand? – for decades, although it may have been replaced with more trendy and performance-inspiring fluids today.

Somehow, Britain has adopted tea as its own, even though it was a product that originates in China and latterly India. It was a symbol of empire and even today you can buy “Empire Blend” at places like Fortnam’s.

At football matches, we still queue for the “half-time cuppa” even though invariably, it is a flimsy plastic cup of brown-coloured water with no taste, that is so scorching that it removes a layer of skin from the roof of your mouth. We have never tried to find a better alternative. If tea is our drink, why do we sell such abysmally poor versions of it? Even in stores like John Lewis, tea is disappointing, watery and unsatisfying.

Some football clubs used to pride themselves in providing a decent cup of tea. For years, at non-league Hitchin Town, they served tea in catering cups. At one game in the 1960s, one of those cups landed in the back of the net, and the incident made the national news. Sadly, the cups have long disappeared, but they have not been forgotten. Somewhere, in Hitchin’s crumbling Top Field ground, there may be a box of white cups, stained with the tea of decades past!

Not everyone is upset by Alex Morgan’s display. Tea companies are actually quite pleased by the image of the US player – it is sure to be used at some point in advertising. At the end of the day, it is a very benign incident that obviously pricked the sensitivities of some fans. Yet sort of ribbing is part of the game and has always has been. Likewise, comments about teams and games have existed since the 1890s, although any criticism of the Women’s World Cup has been met with negative responses and claims of being unfair. We are, after all, in the age of the Disneynification of football!

We have to be careful not to become too sensitive to healthy rivalry and gentle teasing. Football is a tribal sport, the spectators are critics as well as viewers, the players interact with the fans, not only to let-off their own steam, but also to prod the crowd into action. We are not talking fighting or mobbing, but just an attempt to create an atmosphere that goes beyond “Mexican Waves” and counting down to kick-off. Sipping tea is hardly simulating an Orange Day parade (a la Gazza) or slipping in a fascist arm salute, it is either acknowledging that the English have long used “a cup of tea” to define their quaint habits, or as it has been suggested as Morgan tried to explain herself, a symbol of US independence. Get over it, you might say.


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