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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 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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