England grinds to halt as crunch game looms

LONDON - Workers are set to abandon their posts and schools will close early as millions of nervous England fans flock to TV screens to watch the struggling football team's crucial World Cup game with Slovenia on Wednesday.

England, ranked eighth in the world, must beat Slovenia - ranked 25th and with a population of just 2 million - to guarantee a place in the tournament's knockout stage.

Despite its claim to be the birthplace of the game, England have only won the trophy once, on home soil in 1966, and their failure to repeat that success is a perennial source of tortured soul-searching.

After two dismal draws, talk of unrest in the camp and criticism of England's leading striker Wayne Rooney, many fear the long wait for glory will drag on for another four years.

The gloomy mood in Britain deepened on the eve of the big game when the finance minister George Osborne announced the deepest public spending cuts in decades in an emergency budget.

"Cheer us all up boys", the Sun newspaper pleaded in a banner headline over a story that urged England's footballers to lift the nation after the pain of the "brutal" budget.

Osborne weighed into the national debate, telling a television interviewer he would have picked Joe Cole, the Chelsea midfielder who has yet to play in this World Cup.

The last time England failed to get past the first round was in 1958, although they failed to qualify for the tournament in 1974, 1978 and 1994.

The England side - criticised by many as overpaid and underperforming - must raise their game after they only managed draws with the United States and Algeria in their first games.

With anticipation growing, union leaders urged bosses to be flexible and allow workers to take a break.

"We'd encourage them to let people watch the games if they like and then claim back their time afterwards," said Trades Union Congress General Secretary Brendan Barber. "That way, everyone wins."

Six out of 10 companies will allow staff to watch the game, according to a survey by energy company npower.

The British Beer and Pub Association, a trade body, said three million people will watch the game in their local pub, with the industry taking an extra 15 million pounds.

With sunny and warm weather forecast, music lovers at the huge open-air Glastonbury Festival, in southwest England, can watch the action on a giant screen on one of the main stages.

However, the Wimbledon tennis tournament will be a football-free zone after organisers banned vuvuzelas and said they would not be showing any matches on the big screens.

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