World Cup: Backlash!
With the biggest and best sporting tournament having just kicked off in Munich today, it’s time to get on my high horse for a moment or two or three or four. It seems that this time the “anti-world cup” backlash has started much sooner than usual. People have been criticising the constant coverage, the many references to footballing past, the quite real and genuine love of the game… and I don’t know why, but this does get to me just a little bit. Not a huge amount of course, nothing could get in the way of my love of the beautiful game, but there’s a tiny insignificant little corner bubbling away…just a little niggle.
So I want to explain. I want to explain why this is important to so many England fans; why we constantly look back at our past and why winning the World Cup would mean so much to us.
Everyone has their own story, but for me it started at the age of 12. In a way it started long before this. Football was the game at school, it always had been. Every playtime it would be “Austins Take” where every member of old Mrs Austin’s class would be on one team and all the members of the other teacher in our year and also the younger kids too would be on the other. It was a beautiful thing. One team of 20 odd versus another team of about 50 kids, on an uphill playground made of concrete. I was in Mrs Austin’s class… and somehow we won most of the time too. Even now I’m not quite sure how that happened. This happened every single day. Even in a town where the local football team constantly under performed whilst the local Rugby League Team were one of the best in the country, football was our passion. Plus, you couldn’t really play Rugby on concrete.
Then came 1996. Euro 1996. Twelve years old and despite my now instinctive love of the game I hadn’t followed a domestic team or even the national team. I just hadn’t been all that interested. I had vague memory of USA ’94 and an even vaguer memory of Italia ’90, but Euro ’96 caught me. It gripped me from the first ball kicked in the first England game and held on until the very end. I remember watching stunned as we struggled against Spain, I remember watching open-mouthed as we demolished Holland and I remember running running running as fast as my legs would carry me so that I could get from my friend’s house where I had been watching the first half of the Scotland game, to my own house in time to see the kick off in the second half.
Of course, I also remember the Germany game. The heartache when it went to penalties. I remember shouting, “No, Paul Ince should take one!” and I remember Gareth Southgate lumbering up to the penalty spot. Even then I knew he wasn’t going to score and when the German keeper put his hands safely on the ball, I was broken.
I got over it in no time, every kid did but from now on football was more than just something I did at playtimes. I was obsessed with the England team. I wanted to see every friendly, every World Cup qualifier. They were doing well too! They were better than they had been in 96! We could actually win the Cup this time…
Then it happened again. France 98. Second round match against Argentina. Beckham gets sent off. Sol Campbell’s goal disqualified. Penalties. Bloody penalties again. Heat broken. Again.
So we all wait again. Watch all the games and cheer the team on, but the team were slipping, a shadow of what I remembered of them… Kevin Keegan the worst possible manager we could have. Euro 2000 came and went in a flash. I barely remember anything about it aside from England finally beating Germany 1-0 from a lucky Alan Shearer header… and then losing to Portugal and Romania.
Japan / Korea 2002, boy that was a good tournament. The qualifier’s alone had sent the country into meltdown! Germany beat England 1-0 in the last ever game at Wembley. It seemed as if England would never recover their form, until the FA finally bit the bullet and hired a foreign manager. Sven the Swede. Things were good again, we thrashed Germany 5-1 in Munich and went on to qualify for The World Cup with ease. After a shaky start against Sweden England were doing well, beating Denmark 3-0 in a comfortable second round tie and progressing to the quarterfinals. The quarterfinals against Brazil.
They were just better. Much better in fact. Despite a spirited first half performance by England, Brazil showed everyone why they deserved to be world champions. For the first time, I took England crashing out of a tournament in good spirits. We had played the very best and lost fairly. Still, there was always next time eh?
Euro 2004 dawned and although England weren’t as brilliant at they could have been I genuinely believe we were the two top teams once again in that tournament. If Rooney had not been injured I think we would have reached the final. Portugal stood in our way and so did a referee who through some of the worst judgement ever witnessed in a football match robbed us of the chance (he later admitted this bias).
So once more, the England fans are dejected and feeling hard done by. I wasn’t even interested when the draw for the next World Cup qualifiers was made, I was so despondent. It seemed England were destined to crash and burn in every single tournament.
Until yet again our hopes have been raised by a team who, whist not setting the world on fire as yet, have the most potential of any England team fielded since 1990, maybe even 1966. I genuinely believe this.
Is it so much to ask that once every four years (ok ok…every two years even), we Englanders can all go a little bit mad? A little bit obsessive? A little bit self-centred even?
Is it so much to ask that we be permitted to reflect on England’s greatest ever sporting achievement? 1966… To have a fond nostalgia for something that doesn’t involve war or bloodshed or the horrific British Empire?
All I want is to see England win the World Cup.
In my lifetime.
Is it so much to ask?