Monday 15 October 2018

Penalty heartache as England progress

6:15pm, and driving my daughter home from her dance class, I cast an eye on the mixture of people in England shirts and straight-from-work clothes, holding pints and conversation in the front garden of the pub by what used to be my local shops.

There was definitely room for envy on my part, knowing their anticipation was building of a night that would contain excitement, tension and, possibly, jubilation at the end of it. I was in that pub during Euro 96, when a likeminded friend and I watched sour faced as England beat Holland 4-1. Sadly, that friend was turned by patriotism during the Germany semi-final, and though I only see him by chance these days, I expect he's kept up the national pride, just like all the rest. I saw the semi-final in that same pub, silently ecstatic when Arsenal's goalkeeper couldn't save the decisive penalty shoot-out kick, following the failure of one Gareth Southgate to beat Thomas Kopke in the Wembley goal.

"Oh no!" Barry Davies had yelled when Southgate's low shot was beaten away, probably a fan of that Venables team more than Graham Taylor's of four years earlier.

In contrast to the people in that pub tonight, my tension was purely negative, founded on my desperate hope that throughout the pubs and living rooms in the country, including my friends and family, there would be sadness. This may not say much for my character, putting my wishes first ahead of millions of others, but it's how I felt and I'll live with it. It's only hope after all. If I somehow had the chance to effect the result, say with some secret power, I wouldn't have used it. See, not such a bad character, really.

The nerves made the Colombia match unwatchable, but the unseen hung over me throughout the evening. Even though Rodriguez's injury had resigned me to the surely inevitable outcome, I was somehow still receptive to an alternative. The pride of Falcao might show England what we hadn't seen from him in a Chelsea or Manchester United shirt. Cuadrado, who had been given scant opportunity by Chelsea, might bring the winning mentality forged at Juventus, while defender Davinson Sanchez could find extra motivation in facing his Tottenham team-mates. Less hope was invested in Carlos Sanches, a disaster at Villa following his performances at World Cup 2014, and this year sent off after only two minutes in the opening game defeat to Japan for a daft handball in the area.

Twenty years ago during France 98, I'd invested reluctant faith in Colombia, too, when they played England in the final group game.  I watched it in the pub on Brighton Pier with the turncoat friend and another, amongst the customary wall-to-wall ensemble of white shirts. I actually went into that tournament determined to support England, to claim the journey and exile the resentment. I even planted a poster of England in our front garden, complete with the crossed out face of Teddy Sheringham (I couldn't be expected to transition without some complications). I cheered goals from Shearer and Scholes in the 2-0 opening win over Tunisia, and then had friends round for the 2-1 defeat to Romania, in which I showed no let-up in damning the ineptitude of Sheringham. But by the time we were in the pub on the pier, I'd reverted to type, yearning for Valderamma's Colombia to break free of their ineffective, lightweight five-a-side favoured style of football and deny Glenn Hoddle's men a place in the second phase. My heart sank when Darren Anderton (of Spurs) whacked in the first goal, and then cursed David Beckham's 25 yard free kick curler that now counts as an embryonic example of a blossoming trademark. Bedlam broke out around me and England were through to face my beloved Argentina. Surrounded by the vibe of Loaded magazine as we left the pier towards town, a bloke latched on to the three of us, asking "Right lads, where we g'ain, where we g'ain?!!"
"Er, The Event?" my turncoat friend recommended, and it was in that vast, cheesy-tuned venue, that a couple of hours later, I joined a circle of triumph with my two friends to the inevitable playing of Three Lions and Vindaloo. But it was really just a hollow, drunken sham.

And so tonight. Without a giant screen projecting the images in front of me, I learned of my fate via a breaking news bulletin on the missus' phone. It read: 'England inflict more misery on Pierce by winning their first ever World Cup penalty shoot-out, 4-3 over Colombia'. Or something.  My heart sank deeper than it did for the Anderton goal. Like then, there's significant Tottenham involvement in the 'heroics' (yawn). Kane scored another penalty in normal time (1-1), and Eric Dier (Ugh!) scored the decisive shoot-out kick. Gary Lineker, I later read, "had a tear in my eye", watching the players celebrating at the end.

I was left to absorb the bitterness of it, and mutter to the missus that my main hope now was in those Tottenham players matching their achievements at domestic club level of the last two seasons - beaten in FA Cup semi finals when the tough opposition finally showed up. Except that Croatia, if the tough opposition is to be Croatia, won't have the monied depth of talent like Chelsea and Manchester United (the last-four victors over Tottenham, respectively), and that, befitting a country of just 3 million, they/I will have a close-your-eyes, fingers-crossed faith that their first choice starting 11 are all still standing by the time of kick off in 8 days.          




Wednesday 3 October 2018

Where have all the the Brolin's gone? - July 3rd

So where were you when Sweden beat Switzerland?

64,042 people were in the Saint Petersburg stadium to see it happen, but do they even remember who shot the ball in the net? In time, this will be the  knockout Round tie of Russia 2018 that is forgotten, the missing match no one can quite put their finger on, the Anthony Costa of the last 16, a Shane Duffy making-up-the-numbers exercise. England fans will rack their brains and try in vain to recall who it was that Sweden beat to face them (and they will face them, James Rodriguez is almost definitely out for Colombia, the bastard, and it's all part of the conspiracy against me to fire England through to their already bend-free maze of a route to the semi-final), in the last eight.  

Whoever won today was an irrelevance. What did it matter if England faced a Switzerland team containing Vanion Behrami, who was let go by Watford, or Sweden, for whom their established midfielder, Toiven was released by a Sunderland team in the full throes of their cannon-balling from Premier League to League one, after scoring just one goal for them?

All this may sound harsh on the country of my blood. By that I mean Sweden. A few years ago I learned that I am 1/8th Swedish, after my dad's grandad. Perhaps the signs were already there, years before this understated Who Do You Think You Are? discovery of my connection with the country. My first active celebration of a goal against England was Tomas Brolin's dazzling winner in Euro 92 that secured their place in the Gothenburg semi final at their victims' expense.

"Why are you cheering against England?" my sister asked me, clearly not remembering that she'd worked me out in the Italia 90 semi-final against Germany.

"Stuart wants England to lose" she'd accused that night in Turin, with all the ill-conceived judgement of someone who showed no interest in football three years out of four. During the Cameroon quarter-final, she'd zipped her top up over her face every time Roger Milla got the ball, but a year later was telling Barry Davies to shut up when commentating excitably on a snap shot at Anfield.

By the time of Brolin's goal at Euro 92, I was already a fan of his from a friend's Sky TV recording (which I in no way paid for) of the Coppa Italia Final of that year, in which his Parma side beat Juventus. I also had the fetching yellow Sweden kit,  and would crown any goal during kickabouts with Brolin's trademark twist-in-the air celebration. Anders Limpar's appearance in the team helped, too, though more unexpected was my love affair with ABBA, developed on a Bank Holiday Monday in 1995 when ABBA The Movie was put on the telly. I don't know what compelled me to tape this part-comedy, part documentary of their 1977 tour of Australia (Lou from Neighbours played both the band's minder and a taxi driver, highlighting the country's famous actor shortage), but I watched it daily for several months, eventually falling in love with Frida.

At that time, I would have perhaps combusted with joy to learn of my Swedish ancestry, so it was probably best that I found out much later, when things had settled down a little.

And they do seem to have settled down a little. IKEA is no replacement for the lost Fridas and Brolins to the world. While I admit that a trip to Wembley has provided, among other things, effective storage solutions for our family and a generous supply of great value meatballs, this is not a patch on a succession of tragi-pop smash hits or an outside of the boot prod into the top corner.

That said, I wasn't the only Englishman to enthuse over Brolin's 81st minute elimination of England, as Davies on BBC and Brian Moore on ITV went, respectively, with "Brilliant, brilliant goal!" and "Fantastic goaaaal!" Davies was far more sanguine with Maradona's second against England in 86, resigning himself to admit that "you have to say that's magnificent", perhaps showing more affection for Bobby Robson's team that year than for Graham Taylor's labourers of 92.

Regardless, there is no Brolin-type figurehead for Sweden anymore, nor is there Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored four for Sweden in a friendly against England in 2012, including an overhead volley from 30 yards. Unlike the existence of Brazil and France and Belgium - all in the other side of the bloody draw - I have no Brolin or Ibrahimovich to rely on. Nor even a Limpar or a Ljungberg. Nor a Henrik Larsson, busy these days judging women. There's not even a Stefan Schwarz. Not even a Hakan Mild. The Swedes fought hard to beat the Swizz with a looping deflected winner, and then proceeded to sky several excellent chances that they won't have the luxury of against England. Their centre forward, Marcus Berg, hasn't scored at this World Cup yet, although it's fair to say he hasn't played against Tunisia or Panama.

In 1996, when I worked in a hotel-adjoined Health Club in Watford, the work experience boy and I watched on fascinated, as the IFK Gothenburg squad walked in to the lobby in their club tracksuits. One after another, familiar faces from the tv screen walked up to us asking to take a towel for the pool, and us asking them to sign in to the hotel guest list; 'eccentric' goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli, eye-caching winger Jesper Blomqvist, later of Manchester United, workhorse midfielder Mild, who my turncoat England friend and I used to compare a hapless team mate of ours to. Players who played in the World Cup semi-final two years before.

I don't know why the Swedes have stopped producing big. Even the Danes are outstripping them for BBC Four dark drama. Saga Noren may be the star of The Bridge, but it's a show set in Denmark, which has already given us The Killing and Borgen. But maybe on Saturday, a star could be born again and lift a nation, following in Brolin's footsteps and sending Englan...oh no, see, there's that hope again...

‘One more’ lonely night: Spain 2 England 1. Euro ‘24 Final

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