Daily Mail, July 2018
So, that’s it. We lost. England won’t now be in the final of the World Cup on Sunday and Croatia will meet France. We’re disappointed. Of course, we are. But what an incredible ride our team has given us over this past few weeks.
Let’s be honest, few of us ever really expected England to get anywhere near the semi-finals, and it’s been joyful surprise after surprise as Gareth Southgate’s young team have claimed the scalps and progressed through the tournament.
They looked so good, so efficient and mature and so untroubled by the marauding tactics of some of their opponents. No team has outclassed them for skill or effort. In fact, having watched them in close-up for the past few weeks, it has felt as though we’ve been seeing the birth of a new England generation, one that doesn’t promise a lot and deliver little, but one that can play at the very highest level.
We can’t be anything but proud and hopeful for the future for them, a team that included at least three players who a month ago would only have been known well by the supporters of the clubs for which they played.
Had they won last night and then gone on to beat France in the final they would have been national heroes. But to be knocked out of the competition at this stage is no disgrace. They will come home today without a cup or medals, but as winners nevertheless – winners of the hearts and dreams of all of us who have enjoyed their adventure with them.
Because, while they were the ones at the sharp end, young men doing their jobs to the best of their ability before the world’s spotlight, the World Cup wasn’t just about those who took part on the pitch. It was about us, too, as across the nation we united in supporting them.
The flags of St George and the bunting in shops, on cars and in public places, along with the mass euphoria when the games have been shown in parks and on beaches has given the entire country carnival fever.
And as we look around this July morning it isn’t long faces of despair that we’re seeing, but smiling faces of acceptance at a battle well fought and nobly lost. Sportsmanship is everywhere and don’t we need it.
England has rarely been more divided than in this era of Brexit uncertainty, mistrust and even fear. As Gareth Southgate remarked at a media conference yesterday: ‘Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of it unity.’ But sport, he added, has the power to unite us. It does indeed.
As we’ve found, the England team’s efforts have made us feel good about ourselves, so don’t let any killjoy ever again tell you that football is just a game played at the highest level by overpaid mercenaries. It’s much, much more than that.
It’s a lingua franca, a starting point in conversation, a meeting place for usually friendly minds and cultures. Wherever you go in Europe or South America, the Far East or parts of Africa it’s a conversational opener.
The World Cup may be a competition of opposing skills, athleticisms and strengths, but as a game it unites far more than it divides. Think only of the Wild Boars, the boys’ football team in Thailand entombed for more than two weeks until Tuesday at Chiang Rae.
With some of them not even in their teens, the fact that they were a football team endeared them to parents everywhere. Most of us have known schoolboy teams just like them. And, of course, one of them was wearing a red England football shirt.
And now those boys are safe above ground to watch, like us, the World Cup final on Sunday, and, choose which team to support – France or Croatia. I’ve already made up my mind.
In many ways I suppose I’m one of the lucky England fans in that I’m old enough to remember watching TV on that epochal day at the old Wembley Stadium when we first heard those words: ‘Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now!!’ the speaker was Brylcreemed TV commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme as Geoff Hurst knocked England’s fourth goal of the day into the German net and the country went crazy.
It was the mid-Sixties and a time of endless optimism, and to win the World Cup was the icing on that cake of rising expectations in the decade of the Cortina, the Beatles, James Bond and, for many, their first foreign holidays.
For me, at the beginning of my career and working as a sub-editor on a morning newspaper in Liverpool, it was also something of a turning point in my sporting appreciation.
Brought up to play rugby at school it was only when I was in the deep end of that cauldron of football obsession that is Liverpool (where I remember Eusebio’s Portugal played North Korea – known fondly thereabouts as the Diddymen) that I was converted to a new passion – football.
That July day in 1966 changed my life, as I’m sure it did the lives many others. Match of the Day had already been showing on Saturday nights on the BBC for two years then, but the mania that the 1966 World Cup unleashed, as it was played at cities all around the country, totally hooked me. Football as a spectator sport is now more popular among all classes that it ever was.
Back then, with the presumption of youth it seemed to me that, having won the competition, England must obviously be the best and would therefore go on winning it ever after, or at least being in the finals or semi-finals.
Alas, a long vale of disappointment lay ahead. Four years later, after having captain Bobby Moore unfairly accused of stealing a bracelet, goalkeeper Gordon Banks got food poisoning in the 1970 Mexico finals, while it was an astonishing display by a Polish goalkeeper that made sure we didn’t even reach the finals four years later.
Worse was to come. In 1982 Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ cheating did for us, then in 1990 Gazza broke into tears. Penalties were the biggest problem. We just couldn’t win the shoot-outs, with even the now much rightfully lauded Gareth Southgate missing one in 1996. Happily, he seems to have rectified that in the England team he manages.
Who knows what will happen on Sunday? Do we even care anymore? Probably, for most of us, not very much, other than to hope that it is a good game and the better team wins.
In just a few weeks’ time the football season will start again, and the heroes of Russia – and the England team are heroes – will have returned to their clubs to play, in the main, against each other.
And as the autumn and the rain returns, some may ask if all the World Cup hoopla and excitement was worth it.
To which I would say, of course it was. Not only did it make a glorious, happy summer even sunnier, it showed a pride and unity of loyalty throughout the country.
And now we know, for the first time in some years, England has a pretty good team. Roll on 2022.