They think it’s all over? It is now, thank God. I’ve waited for others to vent their spleen over my unfortunate country’s performance on Sunday. At least it was no surprise, and no one said we wuz robbed, because we wuzn’t. Truth to tell, England have never won a European championship or a World Cup except once and then they didn’t deserve to. Nobody who can remember 1966 (as I fear I can) and who has any feeling at all for the game would deny that Brazil were the best team that year. In fact, Brazil four years later were maybe the best team I have ever seen, and the way Pele was hacked out in ’66 was ignominious.
Not that it was the only year when the “wrong team” won the World Cup. In 1954, by all accounts it should have been the Magyar Magicians and not “Aus! Aus! Aus! Das Spiel ist aus! Deutschland ist Weltmeister!” (that was the radio commentator Herbert Zimmerman’s expostulation at the end of the Berne final, as famous as Russ Hodge’s “It's gonna be, I believe ... The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant” three years earlier, or for that matter Kenneth Wolstenholme’s “They think it’s all over ...” in 1966.) And in 1974 it should have been the Dutch artists and not the German artisans.
We are left to mull over why England can’t do it, and with memories of earlier defeats. At least it wasn’t the Argentines this time. In 1986 they licked us with Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” goal followed by his “goal of the century”, dribbling past six hapless ingleses. But the defeat most indelibly etched on my memory is the 1998 World Cup when England again lost to the Argies, in the round of 16, on penalties (Ince and Batty missed theirs, presumably because we didn’t have any players called Ashley then).
As it happened, I watched that game in emotionally heightened circumstances. I was reporting from northern Bosnia and staying at the British Army base in Mrkonjic Grad as a guest of the Light Dragoons, a regiment whose predecessors had charged into the Valley of Death, as Tennyson’s doggerel had it. (Let me emphasize that the fighting was over and that I’ve never been a serious danger-zone correspondent like the lovable and heroic Marie Colvin, killed months ago in Syria.) The troopers were mostly Geordies and Yorkshiremen, passionate supporters of Newcastle or Leeds, and soldiers are the most ardent England fans of all. It occurred to me that those brave lads were very similar to soccer players, and vice versa, young and energetic, physically fit and undereducated, thirsty and horny, the salt of the earth in their way. Imagine a platoon of squaddies each earning several hundred thousand dollars a week, and you begin to perceive the problem with footballers.
That match ended 2-2 after extra time, and after Michael Owen, then of Liverpool, had scored a solo goal of almost Maradonesque brilliance, while David Beckham had got himself sent off for stupidly lashing out after he was fouled. It was also the early days of the Romance of the Century, and I should record for posterity the universal view of our soldiery that, as a token of affection, Beckham was wearing Posh Victoria’s knickers under his soccer shorts. Whether feeling the pinch, as it were, explained his intemperate behaviour I cannot say.
At any rate, at no game I’ve ever attended have I ever known such an atmosphere as in that army canteen, with all the elation and then the deflation. Since then my own attitude has been qualified, and I don’t expect too much, or care too much, which is just as well. My colleague Aleksander Hemon’s “suicidal” post on Sunday night might be going a little too far, though I would agree that brooding about the England team brings to mind Saul Bellow’s saying that the unexamined life may not be worth living, but the examined life makes you wish you were dead.
Wanna culprit? Try Rupert Murdoch. After all, he’s being blamed for just about everything else. The breaking away of the senior clubs to form a separate Premier League 20 years ago has made scores of billions for the clubs as well as for Murdoch’s Sky channel, and transformed English football, for better or for worse. One highly significant comparison to bear in mind as we watch tonight’s could-be-great game: 70 per cent of players in the Liga are qualified to play for Spain, less than 30 per cent of the players in the Premier League are qualified to play for England.