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Whither withering Albion…

As if on cue, the English handwringing has begun. Once more, The Three Lions have failed to reach the final of a major tournament… and once more, the finger-pointing and navel-gazing has started in earnest.  Football analysts will speculate for the rest of the summer on why this “golden generation” failed to make it past the second round, after failing to qualify for Euro 2008 altogether.

Was it fatigue? Don Fabio claims his players were tired from an overlong Premier League season.  Most of his players were selected from teams playing in cup runs or in European leagues.  Some pundits argue the team which qualified so easily by the autumn of 2009 was a shadow of itself, come summer of 2010.

Was it the ball? John Terry was caught out on the first goal yesterday when the ball sailed over his head, allowing Miroslav Klose to score the first tally.  Terry may have been out of position, but the Jabulani seems to have taken some players by surprise. Some observers say it is more favourable for the quick short-pass game of the South Americans… who have seen great success in this tournament so far.

Was it the manager?  Little Englanders say an Italian manager can never understand an English player. Of course, Schteve McClaren was English… and he was pants. Also it’s a little suspect that some of those calling for an English manager are looking for the job themselves.

Was it the selection? When Capello was hired, he said he would pick players based on form. But it soon became clear that the usual cast of characters would be appearing. A brittle Ferdinand was selected, along with players like Carrick, Upson, Heskey, James, Green, Walcott, SWP and Joe Cole… players who didn’t have the best seasons but seemed to have been chosen simply because they had all been capped before.  In-form players like Birmingham’s Roger Johnson, Stoke City’s Etherington and even Wolves’ Jody Craddock weren’t even given a glance.  They may not have international experience… but after this dismal World Cup, would it have mattered?

Was it age? England’s oldest-ever World Cup squad looked slow and random against a positively juvenile German team who looked more organized and experienced yesterday.  Was too much faith put into a group of players who — despite all their club success — have never achieved at the international level?

Is it English football itself? The Premier League has become a sporting Tower of Babel, a marketplace for the world’s players to make their fortunes on the global stage. But with big clubs buying — rather than developing — their players, England’s national team seems to have suffered. Witness the thin pool of talent available to Capello in goal and across the back four.

Many of the current players will likely call time on their international career, come Brazil in 2014.  Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand; they will join the ranks of Lineker, Gascoigne, Shearer, Owen and Beckham before them.  All of them were great players who will never know what it feels like to win the greatest tournament on the planet.

For England fans, there is still 2012… and 2014… and so on. The faithful will wring their hands, hold their breath, and whisper, “Please don’t let us down again.”

Brent Lanthier

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England’s Fury: France ’98

Kevin Hoggard

On June 30th 1998, David Beckham would find himself disappointing the English, due to a coming together with a Latino.  On June 28th 1998, I would come together with a Latina and ultimately disappoint her by being too English.  It took me 10 years to dissolve my union. Beckham screwed up his happy marriage to the nation in 47 minutes.

England qualified comfortably for France 98.  OK that was a joke: when have we ever qualified comfortably for a major competition? South Africa 2010, that’s when.

Needing a result in the final game to avoid the dreaded playoff, the boys battled out an impressive goalless draw with Italy.

So Glen Hoddle — mad as a hatter — accompanied the boys to France.  We weren’t seeded so we had to face one of the top sides in the group stage.  We got a little lucky in drawing Romania; Columbia and Tunisia would fill out the group.

Looking back at it, our side was actually damn good.  Here’s your childish giggle of the day: Campbell, Southgate and Adams were charged with covering Seaman.  Paul Ince, David Batty and Paul Scholes were in the middle of the park.  Graeme Le Saux and Darren Anderton charged down the wings, supplying the ammunition for Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham.  Not only that, but we had a good bunch of youngsters on the bench.  Amongst them were Gary Neville, David Beckham, Steve McManaman, Rio Ferdinand and Little Mickey Owen. 

One notable absence was Paul Gascoigne.  Poor Gazza was out of the squad due to loss of form on the pitch and finding too much form in the pubs.

We started the World Cup by seeing off the Tunisians comfortably. Goals from Shearer and Scholes won us the game 2-0.  The Romania game was our toughest test and it was notable for me, as Viorel Moldovan put Romania ahead in the second-half.  He was a Coventry player at the time and hardly ever scored for us.  The irony was not lost on me.  Owen replaced Sheringham late in the game, and within 10 minutes, the nippy 18-year-old scored an equaliser for us.  But in the final minute, Dan Petrescu broke English hearts and won the game for the Romanians.

I watched the deciding group game in a small bar in San Diego.  My new wife went for a stroll whilst I pounded beers with nervous abandon.  For once, it was a fairly simple game for us.  Owen and Beckham started against the Columbians and both played a big part.  Owen set up Anderton for England’s first goal.  A moppy-haired Beckham curled in what became his trademark free kick and we were coasting.  My wife returned to help cheer on England during the second half, as I sang us heartily into the round of 16.

We returned to Toronto for the next match.  I found myself in a pub packed full of ex-pats all ready to send the Argentineans back south of the equator.  It was a vibrant atmosphere full of beer bellies and replica jerseys.  Just 6 minutes in, Seaman brought down Simeone.  Bati-goal — or Batistuta to the uninitiated — dispatched the spot kick.  It was a lead that only lasted 4 minutes.  Ayala took down Owen and Shearer leathered the ball into the net, 1-1.  Beer flew everywhere.  On 16 minutes, Beckham chipped a delightful through ball to Owen just past the halfway line.  Owen used his speed to race by the Argentine defence and dinked a beautiful finish over Roa.  It was one of the goals of the tournament and Owen had announced himself to the world.

In the first half of injury time, Campbell committed a foul on the edge of our box.  The Argies worked a nice free kick, leaving our defence flat-footed and Zanetti equalised.  Two-two at the half and the chatter in the pub was muted.  As usual, England looked capable of scoring… but looked equally capable of giving up that lead just as fast.

Two minutes into the second half, Simeone flattened Beckham.  As the Argentine untangled himself, Beckham flicked out a leg in retribution, kicking him as hard as a pre-school child kicks a balloon.  Simeone was booked for the challenge but Beckham would receive a straight red for a brief moment of youthful exuberance.

That was it.  There was no way we could hold out for a whole half with 10 men.

But the Three Lions would surprise us and Sol Campbell scored what seemed like the winner on 81 minutes.  He rose majestically at a corner and drilled the ball in with his head, 3-2.  We jumped around and celebrated but as I spun around with mouth wide-open — hoping to catch stray spillage — I looked up and saw the Argentineans attacking.  How could this be?  It was too quick.  They should be taking the kick-off! 

While we madly celebrated, the goal had been disallowed for a push or climbing or being English.  I can’t remember.  I was pretty drunk by this stage.  The referee received the vitriol pouring from drunken English mouths as we cursed our luck for the final 10 minutes of the game.  England held out for the extra 30 minutes.  It was enough time to dull my senses with another pint in preparation for penalty kicks.

We didn’t really need to watch, as we knew what was coming.  Seaman actually saved Crespo’s kick to give us false hope but Ince stepped up straight afterwards and Roa evened things up with a save.  Penalties were exchanged and then Roa would save from Batty. Our World Cup had ended for another four years.

At the end of the match, Toronto’s The Fan590 was interviewing fans, asking their take on England’s demise.  I was asked for a few words.  Unfortunately, all of them were swear words.  It wasn’t live — just sound bites — so I composed myself and let them ask again.  My response was again laced with expletives.  I’d tried to put a cap on my emotions but apparently, that’s impossible after your dreams have been shattered and eight pints of Stella consumed.  They moved on as I continued to talk to my half-empty pint.

The press would vilify Beckham and he was booed mercilessly by opposing fans the next season.  Man United fans took to singing “Argentina” repeatedly in support for their young star.  The Sun — that magnificent publication — published the referee’s email address in the paper, encouraging the knuckle-dragging public to send him their kind missives.  Luckily for Mr Nielsen, they got the address wrong. 

You can’t pin the blame of an exit on a player or a referee.  We all make mistakes (although the disallowed goal was probably the right decision) and frankly, the hatred towards them is uncalled for. 

My anger dissipated by the time someone put an arm around me and said, “Qualifier for the Euros starts in a couple of months.  Fancy another pint?”

A smile then broke across my face, with hope building that we could win the next one.

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England’s Tears: Italy ’90

By Kevin Hoggard

Passionate Italians, close shaves, tight shorts, blood, sweat and a crying Englishman… and that was just my summer job at the docks.  Oh yeah, and there was also a World Cup to wile away our summer evenings.

England win, England win, England win!  Yes, you read that correctly.  We came away from Italia 90 with silverware.  The boys lined up, the medals were distributed, Sir Bobby bowed and gave a speech and finally the Fair Play trophy was ours.

But even more pointless was the 3rd and 4th place “consolation” playoff.  The lads had just lost a gruelling semi-final but couldn’t even pack their bags to go and sit on the beach for a week.  They had to play what amounted to a friendly against disgruntled opponents… with neither team wanting to be there.  And since you asked: we lost that as well.

England had set up base in Cagliari on the island of Sardinia.  They had the paradox of struggling through qualification without conceding a goal.  At the World Cup, they found themselves drawn in a tough group.  The Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and Egypt were the teams tasked with removing the Three Lions from their Italian sojourn.

Sir Bobby had pretty much stuck by the aging squad that had taken him to the quarterfinals in Mexico.  Peter Shilton was the wrong side of 40 and would go on to get his 125th cap during the tournament.  Still in the team were Butcher, Robson, Waddle, Lineker, Beardsley and Barnes.  The youngest player in the squad was Paul Gascoigne.  He would go on to become the iconic figure of Italia ‘90 and then later become an alcoholic, eventually sectioned under the mental health act.  Swings and roundabouts!

England flattered to deceive in the group stages.  For the first 10 days, I sat in my bedsit, watching a 19” TV, drinking cups of tea and controlling my tightening sphincter — quite surprising considering my summer job.

We looked listless in the opening game.  Lineker opened the scoring on eight minutes but Ireland fought back to equalise in the second half.  The result: 1-1.  Our next match was Holland.  Bobby switched to a sweeper system and we actually outplayed the Dutch… but a goalless stalemate ensued.  Bryan Robson would hobble off the pitch, never to return.

So we needed a result in our final game yet again.  All that remained between us and a move back to the mainland were the Egyptians.  It was a struggle, but in the 64th minute Gazza would swing in a beautiful free kick that was met by the balding ginger pate of Mark Wright.

It was enough to make us group winners with Ireland bizarrely joining us in second, thanks to the drawing of lots.  And despite losing the lot draw, Holland would also make it through as a best third place team!  I’m surprised they didn’t let Egypt join in the party as well. Why send anyone home?!?

The win put the team (and our hordes of marauding hooligans) in Bologna to face the Belgians.  Belgium was a limited side but we had hardly sparkled.  During a pretty dour 90 minutes, the closest anyone came was Enzo Scifo.  He struck an incredible swerving 30-yard shot.  It had Shilton beat all ends up but luckily for us, it struck the inside of the post and rebounded out to safety.

Into extra time now and both teams were looking tired.  With one minute to go before the penalty shoot-out, Gazza went on a run and was fouled mid-way through the Belgian half.  We packed the box and Gazza clipped a looping ball into the area.  You’d think with that sort of delivery, the Belgians would be able to at least challenge for the ball… but somehow Platt found the ball dropping to him unmarked.  With his back to goal, he spun and hit a tremendous volley over his shoulder and into the back of the net.  Blessed relief!

The next match was one of my favourites in England’s World Cup history.  Cameroon had won a tough group that contained Romania and Argentina.  They dispatched Colombia in the second round, setting up a quarterfinal showdown with England in Napoli.

I love African’s football mentality.  They’ll probably never win anything in my lifetime but they are always fun to watch.  They are incredibly naive at the back.  They play like school kids.  Nobody wants to defend and everybody wants to go up front to score.  This attitude would lead to an incredibly open game with chances flying at either end.

Platt again opened the scoring with a fairly simple English goal.  Work the wing, cross the ball, head down into the net.  1-0 at the half.  But Cameroon looked good and I was as nervous as a choirboy told to stay behind by the vicar.  Gascoigne made a rash challenge in the area.  Penalty!  It was dispatched with much aplomb and it would be the first of three penalties on the day.

Roger Milla was the face of Cameroon.  He was about 80 when the World Cup was played but he oozed class.  It was he that would slide in Ekeke on 65 minutes to clip the ball over Shilton.  How was this slipping away from us?  Surely we can’t be denied a place in the semi-final by Cameroon, can we?

With seven minutes to go – and with thoughts of spending the rest of the summer playing Kick Off on my Atari ST racing through my head — England were spared by a scything challenge on Lineker in the area.  Penalty number two.  Lineker picked himself up and calmly sent the keeper the wrong way.

Cameroon carved chance after chance out as the game went into extra time.  We looked tired… but the youngest man on the team was still playing strong.  Gazza bustled through his own half and put a slide rule pass into Lineker’s stride.  One on one with the keeper, Lineker was again taken down.  Gary dusted himself down and drilled it as hard as he could straight down the middle.  What a game! 3-2, bring on the Germans!

Deutschland had gone through Poland, Belgium and France before reaching England. Hang on…sorry… wrong tournament.  The Germans had topped an easy group and then beat the Netherlands and the Czechs to get to this stage.

Gazza’s tears for Sir Bobby echo those from Italy, 19 years before.

Twenty years on and it’s still hard for me to talk about the day.  After watching it again for this piece, it still makes me tingle when Lineker equalizes. It makes me ill when Gazza cries and Waddle blazes the hopes of a nation over the German bar.  We outplayed the Germans but as ever, they prevailed.  No words can describe the gut wrenching feeling of that loss.

England lost in a penalty shoot-out on the day.  It was the first one that we, as Englishmen, had been a part of.  We would go on to win one against Spain in the 96 Euros. But then losses to Germany, Argentina and Portugal twice — all by the dreaded spot kick — would see us eliminated from almost every major tournament in this agonising manner.  Six out of seven times we have lost.  Whatever happens in South Africa this year, the one thing I can guarantee you:

No Englishman wants us to endure the agony of that 12-yard kick again.

In the last 20 years, Kevin hasn’t been able to so much as look at a piece of schnitzel… and, for some reason, jumps at the sound of a foghorn.

Up next: The Tournament That Wasn’t.


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