Sunday, 15 June 2014

Memories of England Past

Unless you’ve been living on the Moon recently, you’ll all be aware that the 2014 FIFA World Cup is now in full swing. I’m not a great football fan, but I do follow England in the major competitions. And (if you’re British at least, or Italian) you’ll also be aware that things haven’t gone well for England so far, as they lost their first game 2-1 to Italy.

And yet this World Cup feels different to any other major football tournament that England have been in, at least in my lifetime. It’s almost as if people are expecting England to lose. Most people (myself included) don’t seem to be too concerned that England lost to Italy.

As to how far England can get in the tournament, no one I know of seriously thinks that England will get any further than the quarter finals, and a lot of people think that England won’t even be able to make it out of the group. Expectations for England have never been lower.

In previous tournaments, things weren’t like this. The two best tournaments for England in my lifetime which I can remember were Italia ’90, and Euro ’96. For Italia ’90 I was only 9, and my memories of it are vague. The main thing I remember is that, before we faced Cameroon in the quarter final, my parents were saying that England weren’t going to win because Cameroon were too good. But we did win the match – 3-2 after extra time.

We then faced West Germany in the semi final. It didn’t dawn on me just how big a match this was – England’s first semi-final since 1966. With the teams level at 1-1 after extra time, we then faced the penalty shoot out, and then lost – the first in a long line of penalty shoot out defeats.

Euro ’96 I can remember more clearly, although I wasn’t even aware of it until it was upon us, even though England were hosting the tournament (and I don’t live too far away from Wembley stadium). I watched the opening ceremony, but didn’t bother watching England’s first match (a 1-1 draw with Switzerland). But I did watch our next match, a great 2-0 win against Scotland, and we then followed that up with a thrilling 4-1 win against Netherlands.

And, by this point, there was a buzz being felt throughout the country. People were genuinely getting excited by the competition. Next up was Spain in the quarter final. This match went to penalties, and for the first (and only) time in England’s history, we won the shoot out!

The buzz was now reaching fever pitch – people felt that we could genuinely win the whole tournament. But in the semi final we faced Germany.

However, the country was ecstatic when Shearer scored for England in that match after just 3 minutes. We were ahead! In the semi final! Against Germany! However, we then conceded a goal 13 minutes later, and the score remained that way until full time.

In this competition the Golden Goal rule was being used – if a goal was scored during extra time, the game would end there, with the team scoring the goal winning the match. Some people were concerned that this would produce defensive displays as teams held out for penalties, but this was not the case in this match. Both teams were going for the win, and at one point England came so close – if only Paul Gascoigne had been able to get 1 metre further forward...

The match once again went to penalties. After 5 penalties each we were still level. But then, we lost, and with it the dreams of victory died. The England men’s team haven’t reached the semi final of a major competition since.

In subsequent competitions prior to this World Cup there has been a slight buzz about England, rising slightly if we reach a quarter final, but it was never the same as in Euro ’96.

And that’s a shame. I have friends who are too young to remember Italia ’90 or Euro ’96, and so don’t know what that buzz feels like. Expectations for England seem to get lower all the time. More and more people seem disinterested in the England team, as there’s less and less to be excited about. Granted, there are many people with no interest in football whatsoever, and who wouldn’t even get excited if England made it to the final. But during Italia ’90 and Euro ’96 there were people who previously had no interest in what was happening, and then started to get interested...

Should England start getting good results, that buzz may just start to return. Should we somehow manage to reach the semi-final of this World Cup I dare say it will be back, and the belief that we can win will return. But, I have to admit, even I don’t think we’ll make it that far – to do so we’d probably have to face Brazil in the quarter final (even if we make it that far), and I can’t see us beating Brazil, in Brazil, in the quarter final of the World Cup. But maybe, just maybe, England will surprise us. I’d like for us to, one day, have that buzz about the country again. (And, of course, even better would be the feeling of the country going into meltdown should we actually win something!)

But first, there’s Uruguay to face on Thursday, a game both teams really need to win if they’re to have any hope of making it out of the group.

Come on, England!

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