How England's Journey of Redemption Swallowed My Life
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “This too shall pass” runs the aphorism of the Eastern sages, expressing the essential truth of the human condition that all things bad and good will fade in time. They didn't say it would take so long.
The England football team are in a major tournament final for only the second time in history. Like millions of my fellow sufferers, I’ve only been waiting for this for 55 years. I thought it might have come too late for me, like Bart Simpson finally getting to watch the “Itchy & Scratchy” movie as an old man. I needn’t have worried. My fingernails were bitten to the quick by the end of Wednesday’s semifinal against Denmark, evidence that my inner 12-year-old is still alive and kicking. By the end, while England were playing keep-ball and the crowd were chanting “Ole” (incredible, I know), I was hiding my eyes. The passion and excitement haven’t faded.
I was born in 1963, between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP, and three years before football began. The annus mirabilis of the English game was 1966. It was the genesis, the lodestone, the glory — the year we won the World Cup by beating West Germany in the final (with the aid of a dodgy goal that didn’t cross the line, it has to be said). It’s also the curse, the albatross, the 400-pound monkey that has been on our backs ever since.
The 1966 triumph saddled England with unrealistic expectations, the absurd idea that it should always be among the leading contenders for World Cup and European Championship trophies. There’s the added millstone of having invented the modern game (call it soccer if you must, but don’t make me; in contrast to the many other forms of football around the world, association football is actually played predominantly with the feet). England’s grandiose pretensions and subsequent record of dismal underachievement have provided a never-ending supply of hilarity and schadenfreude to Scottish, Welsh and Irish fans.
But 1966 came rather too early for me. My earliest football memory is the 1973 FA Cup final, which might strike some as unusually late. Blame my parents, who showed little interest in sport. My dad seemed to actively dislike it. Football was rarely on the television in our house. I saw only the first half of the 1974 World Cup final, between the Holland of the brilliant Johan Cruyff and West Germany (who won). At halftime, my father decided that his layabout sons had spent enough time lolling in front of the TV and ought to go dig the garden.
I put that in the eulogy for his funeral in 2015 (out of amusement and affection rather than bitterness); my mum made me take it out. Later on, as our interest showed no sign of waning, Dad did take my younger brother and me to matches in West London, including an epic FA Cup game at Stamford Bridge where Chelsea knocked out the European champions, Liverpool.
My first visit to Wembley, the temple of English football, came in 1977. The father of a friend brought us to see England play Wales in the Home Championship, a now-defunct competition. It wasn’t a happy night. Emlyn Hughes, the Liverpool captain, let a ball drop over his head unaware that the Welsh winger Leighton James had ghosted in behind him. England’s goalkeeper Peter Shilton brought down James, who converted the penalty. The game finished 1-0 to Wales, their first victory over England for 22 years.
It was a subdued trip home through the gray concrete commuter belt that links West London to my hometown of Slough, the silence punctuated only when my friend’s dad muttered morosely about the inadequacies of Kevin Keegan or that Trevor Brooking “couldn’t kick a ball straight to save his life.” I hope the family didn’t have a dog. I think his dad might have kicked it when they got home.
These were the wilderness years for England, when we failed to qualify for two successive World Cups, and when players who performed competently week after week for their clubs seemed magically to lose all confidence and familiarity with the ball as soon as they reported for international duty. The weight of history hung heavy. Watching could be excruciating.
But if being bad and losing was painful, being good and still losing could feel even worse. Or even not losing. England took an improved team to the 1982 World Cup in Spain and were eliminated without tasting defeat, having conceded just one goal (in a match they won, 3-1, against eventual semifinalists France). A bizarre round-robin format was to blame. Even that pales, though, beside the semifinal defeats of 1990 and 1996, both on penalties, both to Germany — the enduring sores that the 2021 campaign has just so cathartically salved.
Football in Britain is intimately interwoven with issues of cultural and national identity, and with tribal enmities. Like many of my generation, I grew up with memory of the war a shadow in the background. I can remember standing on the beach in the south coast resort of Swanage, at about the age of 4, and looking out across the sea to where I had been told Germany was. Germany, land of dark and fuzzily imagined threats, the country we’d been at war with. I probably thought they looked like the Cybermen. We’d been to the nearby tank museum earlier; as a 19-year-old, my uncle had driven a tank during the Normandy landings.
So it didn’t help that they kept beating us, especially in such cruel and unusual fashion, also known as penalties. There was a hair’s breadth between the teams on both occasions. I can still see Chris Waddle’s shot coming back from the inside of the post during extra time in the 1990 semifinal. It seemed sadistically improbable that both matches could have ended in the same way with the same result, England losing on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make crazy.
By 1996, I was living in Hong Kong. The England team came out for a pre-championship tour. They played an exhibition match, winning 1-0. It was so dreary that I can’t even remember who they were playing or who scored. The real fireworks came later. In those days, I used to frequent a bar-restaurant not far from the Hong Kong stadium called the China Jump. If I’d gone down there after the game that night, I might have caught Steve McManaman or Teddy Sheringham pouring spirits down the throat of Paul Gascoigne in the notorious “dentist’s chair.”
The loutish episode generated many tabloid headlines back home, and calls for “disgracefool” Gascoigne (as the Sun called him) to be dropped from the team for Euro 96, which was held in England. It also gave rise to one of the most iconic goal celebrations in football history. In the first-round match against Scotland at Wembley, Gascoigne, the most extravagantly gifted English player of my lifetime, proved his naysayers wrong by scoring a wonder goal — lifting the ball high over the head of defender Colin Hendry with his left foot and then volleying home with his right. Gascoigne then lay on his back behind the goal line for team-mates to squirt water into his mouth in conscious mimicry of the dentist’s chair.
Then again, maybe the tabloids weren’t entirely wrong. If Gascoigne had been just a little bit fitter, perhaps he might have reached that open goal in extra time of the semifinal.
My feelings for Germany have warmed considerably over the years. It’s been a step-by-step process. Juergen Klinsmann has a lot to do with it. When he signed for Tottenham Hotspur in 1994, the striker was one of the primary hate figures of a German team that was heartily disliked in England. That had much to do with his reputation for diving to win penalties. At his introductory news conference, Klinsmann arrived with a mask and snorkel in his bag and asked the assembled media whether there were any diving schools in London. He was soon one of the most popular players in Britain.
The English are pushovers, really. Show them a little self-deprecating humor and they’ll love you forever. Klinsmann sowed a seed of doubt that perhaps German footballers weren’t the humorless, efficient automatons I’d been led to believe. There was also their evident sportsmanship. After Waddle missed the decisive penalty in 1990, German captain Lothar Matthaus was first to console him. Waddle acknowledged that if the positions had been reversed, it wouldn’t have occurred to him to do the same.
The old antagonisms have grown tired and outdated. England’s more jingoistic supporters have been known for harping on the war in their anti-German chants, but there has also been the nagging, uncomfortable suspicion that the fascists are more in our own ranks these days. There has always been a strong vein of far-right nationalism among the team’s supporters, one of the things that has made England so hard to like.
As a student in Paris in 1984, I saw England play France at the Parc des Princes, a warmup match for that year’s European Championships (another tournament that — sigh — we didn’t qualify for). England lost to two goals from France’s midfield genius Michel Platini. The match was more notable for what happened off the field. We had tickets in the home supporters’ end. Shortly before halftime, a French fan sitting beside me tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the opposite end, where the air was thick with missiles and tear gas as the CRS riot police charged into the England end. It was the heyday of English hooliganism. On the way out of the stadium, I saw a group of small French schoolchildren carrying flags. It was an uncomfortable experience.
That’s what makes it such a joy that of all Englands, it is this England that has finally broken the hoodoo — the England that takes the knee, a multiracial team that comes across as modest, unassuming and disciplined, led by a manager who has the decency and moral clarity to push back against the abuse heaped on his players and the politicians who shamefully pander to such sentiments. Of course, the fans’ behavior was never the fault of the players in the past. But the success of this England team feels like the assertion of a more expansive, more tolerant, more inclusive identity.
For me, Euro 2020 has had a pervading feeling of serendipitous, karmic closure. It’s been heartwarming to see Klinsmann alongside Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer, heroes of the 1990 and 1996 campaigns, in the BBC studio. The manager, Gareth Southgate, missed the decisive penalty in that 1996 defeat; no one deserves this success more than him.
As for Sunday’s final against Italy, I don’t care who wins. I’m just glad we’re there. That’s how I feel right now, anyway. Perhaps that feeling will pass, too. Check my fingernails in the 90th minute — they’ll tell the story.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matthew Brooker is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion. He previously was a columnist, editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News. Before joining Bloomberg, he worked for the South China Morning Post. He is a CFA charterholder.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.