We’ve all been looking for something to celebrate during lockdown and it was hoped that England’s run in the delayed Euro 2020 would provide some hope for a country now just one week away from an end to most Covid restrictions…
With all of England’s matches, except just one, being played at Wembley (the ‘home’ of English football), everything seemed perfect, and expectations were raised as the team reached ever closer to their ultimate goal.
As someone who has been a passionate fan of the national team since 1973, when, aged five, I watched England lose to Poland and not qualify for the 1974 World Cup, just seven years after winning it, there was, it felt, a feeling of redemption around the corner. All those disappointments and near misses over the years, could finally be put to bed!
As England stumbled through the group stages, at least the sight of some fans at matches, something we had not seen in earnest for quite some time, gave us heart. 20,000 fans allowed initially, then 40,000 for the crucial last 16 match against Germany and upwards of 65,000 for the semi finals and final.
We have history with the Germans of course, both in and out of football. Apart from 1966, on the pitch, for England, it has been mostly defeats. But this team stood up and were counted – England were on their way to the quarter finals and it became apparent, to me anyway, that many non-football lovers, were jumping on the bandwagon.
Genuine football fans don’t like hangers on. You have to earn the right to enjoy good moments. Only years of pain can do this. Recollections of Poland’s Jan Tomaszewski, The Netherlands’ Ronald Koeman and Argentina’s Diego Maradona and many others are entrenched in my mind and of those like me. We have earned the right to eternal glee, should we get over the line this time. You can’t just turn up and wave your hands in the air.
An emphatic victory over Ukraine in Rome and a very fortunate victory over Denmark at Wembley followed. Denmark of course, if you have been paying attention, did provide the tournament’s most talked about incident. Their talisman and best player, Christian Eriksen, familiar to all English football fans due to his long and successful time at Tottenham, collapsed with a heart attack during their opening match against Finland.
We’d seen this happen before, a few times, but it was still a major shock. Thankfully, Erisken is on the way to a full recovery (although unlikely to play again) and remarkably, Denmark recovered to qualify from their group and become every neutral’s favourite team due to this story and quite frankly their exciting brand of football.
But room for sentiment among England fans could only stretch so far – the Dane’s were beaten and suddenly the realisation of a final against Italy dawned.
I had seen Italy play at Wembley in their last 16 match against Austria and what was evident was the passion of their fans, almost certainly drawn mostly from the large Italian community in London as Covid was still preventing overseas visitors from attending.
Clad in the Tricolore of red, white and green and singing the national anthem Il Canto degli Italiani (a tune that quite frankly raises the hairs on the back of your neck, however many times you hear it) with great gusto, these fans were the embodiment of passion, knowledge and heart and representing their country in the best way possible.
And so to the final. It was clear to everyone that the country would reach a standstill at 8pm on Sunday 11th July. Most people, probably around 20 million, would be watching on TV either at home with friends and family or gathered in pubs, where an amnesty of sorts had been given regarding Covid, one week early.
Off the pitch, things did not start well. Scenes of oikish chanting and mass littering were shown at Leicester Square and other locations. Then the news broke that a group of would-be fans without tickets, had breached the outer security banner at Wembley and a few had somehow made it into the stadium. Terrible publicity for the Football Association who are planning a joint UK bid for the 2030 World Cup. However frustrated people were with the painful, and often unfair, manner in which UEFA sold tickets, there was no simply no excuse.
On the pitch though, things did start well. Very well. A goal in under two minutes for England, scored by defender Luke Shaw. Perhaps the football gods were with us after all. I mean, we only had another 88 minutes to hold on and the cup was ours. But we knew, we just knew that it would never be straightforward. It never has been, it never will be.
Italy are clever, canny and, after a 31 match unbeaten run, eventually, they equalised. Hearts sunk, reality dawned, prayers were said, everyone became an expert, but only Gareth Southgate could make the crucial decisions that were needed. “Bring on Jack (Grealish)”, we all screamed – but he got just a cameo in extra time and slowly, but inevitably, the game went to a penalty shoot out.
I won’t dwell on the shoot out here and how and why England lost, as this is not a match report. However, as England’s three penalty misses were all made by young black players, it was inevitable and incredibly sad that we woke up to headlines of social media abuse they received overnight.
Unfortunately, England has this element of society which sadly can’t help itself. This stereotypical white male football fan makes us realise that as a nation, England is not yet deserving and not yet ready after all.
Football might not have come home, but it’s been one hell of a month and all I can say today is “Ben fatto Italia!”.
Who’s coming for a pizza ?