The lads had cut a deal with their Wags, to use the vernacular of The Sun, and now it was time to collect. It was June, it was the 2010 World Cup and the television remote belonged to the boys.
The “boys” were banker and Spurs supporter Mark Samuel, broker and Arsenal fan Rory St John, and City lawyer and Chelsea obsessive Bertie Jardine. The three sporting comrades would spend Saturdays in their dress-down uniform of beige chinos and brown Sebago Docksides at The Fat Badger, the gastropub on Portobello Road, to sink pints and talk football – the conversation punctuated by the occasional buzzing BlackBerry updating its owner with the latest scores.
And it was during one of these sessions that their World Cup strategy was laid out. They would launch a charm offensive on Mark’s wife, Sarah (as well as working on Rory’s permanent partner, Fiona, and Bertie’s semidetached girlfriend, Cecily), to allow the trio to hog the television in the Samuels’ large Notting Hill flat from June 11 when the football circus kicked off in South Africa.
The schmoozing began in late spring when Mark, supported by his comrades in arms, boycotted all sport on television and sat through a gamut of soaps and made-for-TV movies in return for future control over the TV remote on Group C match days (England’s group). Additionally, the soccer musketeers told the girls that on those days they would take it in turns to organise a gourmet meal of the national cuisine of England’s opponents.
Unfortunately, the plan didn’t go exactly as they had wished. Mark had agreed to cook the first supper on an American theme as England was playing the US. He intended to serve clam chowder and barbecue chicken accompanied by Californian sauvignon blanc. But on the Saturday morning of the game a hostile bid by one of his clients forced him to spend the day at the office, which left him hurrying to get a taxi home in time for his guests and the 7.30pm kick-off. He had to ditch the idea of appearing as the aproned master of the hickory woodchip and instead slipped into The American Foodstore in Holland Park for pretzels, a six-pack of Dr Pepper and an easy pudding of Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix with accompanying syrup. Then he sprinted to Pizza Express for six “American” pepperoni pizzas.
Rory’s efforts with the cuisine of England’s second opponents, Algeria, did not fare much better. His sweep of the internet only found Algerian dishes containing either camel or goat, both of which were fiendish to source and would anyway have been ticklish for him to cook as he struggled to make a boiled egg and soldiers. His solution was to sidle up to the North African owner of the exotic fruit and veg stall in Shepherd’s Bush Market who agreed, for a consideration, to get his Algerian cousin Hassan to cook a banquet for the party. And at half-time Hassan duly delivered his creation with a flourish to the square-eyed TV supporters. It was a dish he called “Boulettes de Viande” in a garlic broth that, as the guests quickly discovered, was meatballs floating in grease. “My 11-year-old goddaughter could do better,” said Sarah.
By now it was obvious that Bertie would have to produce something spectacular for the third and final group match against Slovenia. The Wags wanted silver service, not football-fan slop. He decided that, instead of cooking, he’d ask the best Slovenian restaurant in London to make him a grand takeaway. “It will be no problem, sir,” said the manager of the Ljubljana Grill in Tooting, the only Slovene eatery Bertie could find. “It is a special night for us too, so you will have what we have.”
An hour from kick-off, with the taxi waiting outside, Bertie rushed into the restaurant to collect his speciality Eastern European grub. “We have given you our most popular dish,” said the waiter. “When people go out in Slovenia they always eat it.” As Bertie picked up the brown paper bag, he glanced inside eagerly. And there, sitting in individual pitta breads, were six steaming doner kebabs.