Friday, June 09, 2006

Why England matters.

For the vast majority of the world tomorrow brings the beginning of the 2006 World Cup. From this point on I really couldn't care if you are a Democrat, Republican, straight, gay, black or white or from Delaware. From this point on all I really care about are the chances of 22 young Englishmen and their slightly dotty Swedish coach. Of course I'll be nice to Frau Random Doubt and I will feed the cat but beyond that it's all about events in Germany.

Why does England matter? I don't live there anymore; it's a long way away and it tends to rain. So why is it so important to me, achingly, heartstoppingly important that the England win the World Cup in 2006?

Its a little bit history, a little bit culture and a ridiculous bit pride. I've tried to follow that line from 'Pulp Fiction' "That's pride fucking with you" and walk away, except I haven’t and I never could, even if I wanted to.

Let’s look at the history of all this, albeit briefly.
Football began in England and very quickly spread across the globe. The arrogance of my imperialist forefathers prevented the England team from entering the first three world cup tournaments, in the 1930s as it was obvious to anyone listening that England would wipe the floor with the unwashed, uncivilized foreign opposition. They went instead to play a constant round of friendlies including one where the team had to give the Nazi salute before playing Germany, wouldn’t want to upset that nice Herr Hitler now, would we?
It wasn’t until after WW2 that we actually entered a world cup. It was in Brazil and we were beaten 0-1 by the USA. Arguably one of the greatest sporting upsets of all time. Right, yeah, thanks.

In 1966 we won the bloody thing.
There have been acres of books written about each and every single aspect of that undoubted triumph, I’m even reading one of them right now. On a warm July afternoon we beat the Germans 4-2 and Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy to proclaim England’s glory to the world. I could go on; I could go on and on and on. Most English people do. That’s always been the trouble with being one of the post 1966 generation. We have had to hear so much about this from the generations that witnessed it (although fortunately my own father tends to go on about Norwich City’s 1959 cup run considerably more than he does the winning of the World Cup, for those interested he watched the final in a German bar whilst serving in the RAF).

The 70’s were bleak. In Mexico in 1970 we went out in heartbreaking style to the Germans 3-2 after being 0-2 ahead. We failed to qualify for 1974 and 1978. Truly a dour decade for our World Cup dreams.

I was really too young to appreciate the 1982 tournament except for Bryan Robson’s goal against France and reports of England fans causing trouble and getting stabbed., that scared me, I was 9.

1986 was the year that Maradona cheated by hand balling the ball past Peter Shilton’s head into the England goal. We were starting to see a pattern with our rivalries, Germany, Argentina; if shots had been fired between our two nations then the likelihood was that we would meet (and lose) upon the football pitch.1986 was also the year that many of the games were played at odd hours of the day, the tournament being in Mexico. I remember my father leaving notes beside my bedside as I was too young to be staying up every night for a month just to watch Canada play Hungary.

I remember the Italian tournament of 1990 very fondly indeed. I remember it for a number of fantastic reasons.
It was my first grown up World Cup. I was 17 and was allowed to have a beer or two whilst watching the games. The games were in the same time zone as we were, we had a large TV in the conservatory and our friends would all pile over and watch as David Platt and Paul Gascoigne became our new World Cup heroes. It was also a beautiful summer, hot and dry (uncommon for England) and we reached the semi finals playing fantastic football.
Ah yes, we reached the semi finals, the semi finals.
And who did we meet in the semi finals?
Germany. The new Germany, the oh so cool now the wall has come down Germany.
And yes, we lost on penalties and ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne cried and became an icon and lived off that moment for the rest of his drunken, confused life, and fuck! We lost to Germany. It seemed that one afternoon 7 years before I was born was destined to milk all the World Cup karma for ever and ever. I was 17 and I hated my father’s generation for what they had done 24 years earlier. I hated the fact that I would never ever get to live through what they had lived through. I hated the Germans too.
That year we were good enough. Plenty good enough. The final should have been Italy and England and it would have been a thing of beauty. We had emerged from the dark ages of aggro and being crap but it was not to be. Instead they ended up with Argentina and Germany and the Germans won by a miserable penalty in one of the most boring games ever seen.

We failed to qualify in 1994, something to do with a turnip. The tournament was hosted by the USA so we were better off at home anyway. Al Gore presented the trophy to the winning Brazilians in LA.

But we were back in 1998, two years after reaching the European championship semi finals in England and losing to Germany on penalties (I kid you not, In 1996 Football 'came home' to England. It came home but as Frank Skinner pointed out, "Found that it had forgotten it's doorkey"). We had fantastic players like some of the ones you may have heard of like David Beckham and Michael Owen and we met Argentina in the quarter finals and lost. Sometimes you can only hurt so much. Sometimes you just have to wonder what might have been if Beckham hadn’t been sent off for a pointless yet understandable retaliation.
The thing is this; I doubt we would have beaten France that year. We would have given them a good game and we were certainly good enough but sometimes the stars don’t shine for you. Sometimes you leave your umbrella at home and it rains. The French had home advantage and were good enough-even though Brazil should have won.
It was shortly after this that a friend at the time, Vinny, a French dude who worried about how much we English all drank came up with one of the best and most disconcerting lines I’ve ever heard. “ I have seen something that only your father has seen”. I was about the punch the frog, assuming he’d been peering into my mother’s bedroom window when he explained. “I have seen my country lift the World Cup* in triumph”. Bastard.

*Technically no, Vinny, technically you are wrong. Wrong and French. Ouch!
The trophy Bobby Moore lifted in 1966 was the Jules Rimet Trophy which was used until 1970 when Brazil won the tournament for the third time thus earning the right to keep the trophy forever. The trophy Didier Deschamps lifted in Paris in 1998 was the much less glamorous sounding FIFA World Cup Trophy which was introduced for the 1974 tournament held, and won by West Germany. So there is a difference. Vinny, you will read this and thank me.

And onto 2002 Japan and Korea. We beat Argentina which was quite simply divine old boy. Then we messed it up against Brazil. Fair enough, they were worthy winners but dammit!

That’s sort of why I think this has to be our year. We have rebuilt ourselves as a footballing nation. When I was a kid going to football was often pretty scary. There were hooligans (they haven’t quite gone away but they used to be everywhere) there were deathtrap stadiums that either burned you to death or crushed the life out of you and following the England team was best done at home under a blanket. Neo fascists corrupted the support with their racist chants and paramilitary banners.
We have taken all that back. England’s support is blacker and more Asian, there are actually women involved these days and we have reclaimed the cross of St George as our rightful national symbol. I hope to God that we are not blighted by hooligans in this tournament although I am sure there will be some violence, although not on any kind of scale as we saw in the past and hopefully not involving English supporters.
Of course we mock the Germans, its impossible not to, ask Red Sox fans to be nice to Yankees? See what I mean?
None of this happened with government initiative (although plenty of politicians have tried to cash in) it happened because the fans made it happen, because when we lose we hurt and winning is at best a distant memory and for most of us a dream unfulfilled.
I know it’s been a ramble but please, if you have a choice, why not tune in Saturday morning at 9am, ESPN and give the boys with three lions your support.


weasel said...

Nice summation; I shared much of the same experiences (just in different places) and felt many of the same emotions.

I remember that when Platt scored the winner against Belgium in 1990 I fell backwards out of a ground floor window, such was the general level of excitement.

I like the whole tournament though, like when Cameroon put the wind up Argentina in '90, or getting my pre-adolecent hair cut under an incongrous photo of Michel Platini at the German barbers on base, or Toto Schillaci's mad eyes, or the South Koreans and Japanese going bonkers and doing well last time out.

Like you, I'm going to revert to the tribal for the next few weeks. In the words of my late, paternal grandfather;


Mondale said...

I love it, it's jujst the best, sweetest thing ever. I fall in love all over again and I am almost certainly going to cry at some point between now and July 9th.

Bill Norris said...

It wasn’t until after WW2 that we actually entered a world cup. It was in Brazil and we were beaten 0-1 by the USA.

How, by the way, did this happen? Because, as someone who grew up with a pair of addidas on at all times and a goal in the backyard, I was never quite able to wrap my mind around this little factoid. I always assumed the English were playing with war wounded or something.

And until I was grown, the only World Cup I could find on TV was a) fuzzy and b) broadcast in Spanish. Cable came late to my life.

But if it makes you feel any better, at a soccer camp when I was in my early teens, I scored a beautiful goal on Hubert Birkenmeir. Corner kick, breaking from the far post, and the header finds the back of the net. Granted, he was getting Social Security at the time, but still, a Kraut.

Mondale said...

England 0-1 USA.
I was having such a nice World Cup, why bring up the crimes of our grandfathers?