England and Me: An Autobiographical History of World Cup Failure
Everyone knows about 1966. “Some people are on the pitch, they think it’s over”, Geoff Hurst’s hattrick, the Russian linesman etc. It was the last, and only, major trophy England have ever won and the inability to do so again has blighted my entire life as an England supporter. One that dates way, way back.
I was 9 years old when this World Cup happened. The previous one had taken place when I was 5 and I don’t remember anything about it. Apparently this was the World Cup that saw final group games taking place at the same time being introduced after Germany and Austria played out a scandalous 1-0 that allowed both teams to advance at the expense of Algeria. England went out of that World Cup without losing a game thanks to a second round robin section ahead of the semi-finals.
1986 was a weird World Cup because loads of home nation sides were there. Scotland, Northern Ireland and England all at the same World Cup. Both of the others came a cropper during the first group stage while England advanced despite a naff 0-0 with Morocco. A convincing 3-0 win over Poland being my first exposure to English success at International level.
Then I was introduced to something different; cheating. England hammering Paraguay (this World Cup shit is easy thought 9 year old me) before meeting Argentina in the quarters. I distinctly remember the match being on a knife-edge as I sat cross-legged on my lounge floor, and as Maradona punched the ball past Peter Shilton (where were you VAR?) I was greeted with feelings of injustice and horror that such a thing could be allowed. The Hand of God? It was your hand you stumpy Argentinian cheat! Maradona went on to score a second that sealed England’s fate and brushed aside Belgium before a scintillating final win over West Germany.
It should have been a warning really. England going out to a dubious goal. The country full-on celebrating Gary Lineker winning the Golden Boot as if that actually meant something (I clearly remember hoping Maradona wouldn’t score in the final so the honour could fall to Our Gary).
After a solid performance in 1986 I came into 1990 so full of hope. Oh, how young and naïve I was. However the England team was very strong and everything felt right. They even had a banging theme “World in Motion”, which has never been bettered. As the groups kicked off defending champs Argentina managed to lose 1-0 to Cameroon and my mood improved. It felt like justice had finally been done, four years on. England, of course, made hard work of the group stage drawing with Republic of Ireland in a terrible game and 0-0 with Netherlands after that. Eventually squeaking into the knock-out stages with a 1-0 win over Egypt.
I remember having to go to bed before extra time was played in the round of 16 against Belgium and only finding out in the morning that David Platt had volleyed England into the quarters. Cameroon were waiting but England squeaked through in extra time again in a terrific match. And then it happened. Penalties. Against Germany. Again I was there on my living room floor. I distinctly remember saying that Stuart Pearce would “probably break the net” with his pen, knowing the power Psycho had in his left boot. Only he hit the keepers legs and we fucked it. Again. The sight of Chris Waddle blazing his penalty over the bar still haunts my dreams. England managed to win the Fair Play trophy here but that’s about it. It remains my saddest footballing memory…apart from Euro 96.
This was the tournament where Graham Taylor had a nightmare, got turned into a turnip by the Sun, and England didn’t even get on the flight to the States for the World Cup. The defeat by Norway at least gave us an all-time great meme. “Margaret Thatcher, your boys took one hell of a beating”. I remember losing to Norway being humiliating but we were ahead of the curve in being shocked and dumped out of the tournament before it began. It became reasonably trendy. France also fucked 1994 and got pipped by Sweden and Bulgaria.
With England missing everyone turned Irish (I am part Irish, which explains the drinking) for the summer. They did pretty good! They beat Italy for starters and made it out of the group. Also Argentina got bounced out by Romania in the Round of 16, which made me fairly happy. I remember my feeling for the tournament was that not having England in there was a relief. No chance for heartache. Ireland themselves quietly slipped out to the Netherlands, Bulgaria dumped Germany out (to cries of joy) and Roberto Baggio dragged a terrible Italy team to the final on his own. Then missed the key penalty in the final, handing the title to Brazil.
This World Cup game in a weird time in my life. In my early 20s, in a bizarre long distance relationship and keeping extremely strange times. I would be awake all night, go to bed at dawn and work in the evenings. Mentally everything was a bit messy. England got out of the groups, despite managing to lose to Romania in the second game, courtesy of a clinical win over Colombia. Two up after half an hour and coasted home. However due to the Romania loss we were paired with Argentina, instead of Croatia, and wouldn’t you know it went to fucking penalties. Again.
This was a hard one to take. England trailed early but came quickly back to lead 2-1 with an exquisite Michael Owen goal. In extra time Sol Campbell was denied a perfectly good goal for some phantom foul and Beckham got sent off for an incredibly soft kick at Diego Simeone. I still think Kim Nielson (the ref) is a cunt. So instead of watching England have a glorious World Cup, which they seemed destined to do in 1998, after being incredibly unlucky in Euro 96, I flew to my girlfriend’s house in Alabama and stayed there for the rest of the tournament. I have not actually seen any of the rest of France ’98, bar possibly highlights of the final. It felt like this was the golden generation; a strong defence, Beckham, Scholes, Owen and Shearer plus Ince giving us midfield steel. Everything seemed right and we didn’t even make the quarters.
2002: Japan/South Korea
When trying to remember how these tournaments panned out I drew a complete blank with 2002. Apart from England’s group win over Argentina. It was on at 11am, or some shit, and I recall having to ring the landlord of my local pub to wake him up. We were sat front and centre. I got steaming drunk (which might have something to do with my lack of recollection of this tournament) and we went on a record-breaking bender for the rest of the day. We actually had to go around the pubs apologising for our behaviour and to this day I don’t know how I didn’t die of alcohol poisoning. This is the most I have ever drunk. June 7 2002.
As per usual there was false hope with England stuffing Denmark 3-0 in the Round of 16. And it was 3-0 at half time, we absolutely coasted home. And then Brazil beat us in the quarters. Ronaldinho scoring a salacious free kick from way out, floating the ball over David Seaman’s head in an absolute fluke. I remember being so angry about the draw and who was left. That World Cup was there for the taking. I’d been frustrated so many times over but in 2002 that semi-final line-up was not strong at all. South Korea made it and had England bested Brazil they would have played Turkey.
By this point I’d been burned one too many times and I went into 2006 with lowered expectations (finally). The group was soft (Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago) and England qualified easily for the knock out stages. Then an uneventful win over Ecuador in the Round of 16. Piece of cake so far. Why did I lower my expectations so much?
Oh yeah, because penalties. Against Portugal this time. Frank Lampard, Steve Gerrard and Jamie Carragher all missed. It was around this time that I started to despite the England team because it was comprised of players I loathed on the reg. I’d spend all season screaming abuse at Stevie G and then because he was wearing a different shirt I had to support him? It just felt wrong. And all the wankers I hated the most all missed pens. Meanwhile Owen Hargreaves, who I like, scored. This was also the game where Wayne Rooney got sent off for a stamp. I had been a Rooney defender up to this point, despite his defection from Everton, but that was the end of it.
On reflection I hated almost all of the 2006 England team. Neville, Rio, John Terry (Captain, Leader, Cunt), Cashley Cole, Gerrard, Lampard, Joe Cole, Rooney. I even hated Sven. You’d think this would be me bottoming out on England but worse was to come.
2010: South Africa
Vuvuzelas, “Waka Waka”, bribes, Thierry Henry handballing Ireland out before it even started. There was a lot going on in South Africa. Not least of all a shit England team. It kicked off with Rob Green fumbling a nothing shot from Clint Dempsey and handing a draw to the USA. Green selected by Fabio Capello for entirely stupid reasons. His confidence ended up being shot and it ruined his career. Then a frankly terrible draw with defence-minded Algeria, a result that saw England booed off by their own supporters. This was the peak of me despising Rooney as he commented to camera about the boos from the crowd. They were right to boo mate. You fucking deserved it.
England came in attempting to play 4-4-2 and Gerrard ended up out of position and not affecting the tournament as he did in club football. England edged out Slovenia and progressed to the knock-out stages. Where they ran head-long into an ambitious, driven young German side that cleaned their clock. Capello was exposed for taking the job for the money as he clearly didn’t give a shit about England winning anything. He didn’t bother sorting out selection headaches pre-tournament and ended up playing a team with no balance that were scythed to pieces by Mueller and the rest.
I was past caring at this point but people do still look back at Frank Lampard’s goal that wasn’t given, although it was way over the line, but frankly that England team was always moments away from capitulating so it doesn’t matter. Meanwhile Spain passed everyone to death and 1-0’d their way to their first World Cup.
Ok, so you know how my hate of England’s national team hit a peak in 2010? 2014 blew that clean out of the water. A fucking abysmal World Cup all round. An inept series of performances, filled with fear and slow build ups. First Ballotelli did England over and then Suarez did. The players performances were dire and every excuse under the sun was trotted out for a bunch of spoiled millionaires who only cared about the pay day.
Even their attempts to “build for the future” failed with the youngsters thrown into the third game and performing just as badly as the senior players. It is telling that most of this squad did not go to the 2018 World Cup. England needed to rebuild from the ground up.
And I was done with football. Around 2015-2016 I stopped watching, only catching the occasional Match of the Day. The continued disappointment of England’s failures was a huge part of that.
And that brings us to now. Having despaired over England’s last three World Cups and stopped watching football altogether the lure of another World Cup drew me back in. The last game I’d seen live was Portugal vs. France in the final of Euro 2016, in the Star of Bethnal Green surrounded by waiters from the Nandos across the road. My expectations for this tournament were at an all-time low. I even formed a group chat with a bunch of my mates from other countries so we could compare and contrast stuff and I never, ever dreamt England would out-last all of their countries.
Even when the tournament started I had questions over the set up. Was Southgate savvy enough for a World Cup? Was there enough talent, especially in midfield, when the shit hit the fan? Was the temperament of the players right? Was it too hot? Was Kyle Walker thick as shit? As Tunisia equalised from the spot in game one I didn’t get the ‘sinking feeling’ I just figured “England is England, they’ll never change”. But then they dug deep and managed to win that game in injury time. A little surprising sure but hey, it’s England.
Game two, where a clinical England put pay to Panama while barely breaking a sweat, was more eye-opening. 6-1 and aside from a loss of concentration from a set piece a good performance. No failure in front of goal, no stupid penalty or red card. Then a ‘tactical loss’ to Belgium to give England an easier route to the final. Southgate was as smart as his waistcoat.
Something I’ve not mentioned during this recap so far is that I tend to be bad luck. When I’m not watching England are pretty successful.
For example in 2006 I missed the win over Ecuador. In 2010 I missed the Slovenia win. I missed England beating Germany 5-1. This year I missed the Colombia game, despite seeing the Colombia goal (I am a jinx) and I missed the Sweden game. England have never been knocked out of a tournament unless I was watching. So it was always going to happen…England lost to Croatia in the semis. But making the semis itself is a huge achievement and for once I didn’t feel like England bottled a chance to actually win the World Cup. This felt like a young team given a shot and like Germany in 2010 had a go and came up just short. Hopefully they’ll be able to repeat the feat and win in 2022. Oh wait, that’s in Qatar isn’t it? It’ll be a million degrees and all the players will melt.
That’s not quite how I expected this to pan out. Anyway, that’s my history with England at the World Cup. It’s been a rollercoaster ride of emotions from despair to joy to misery to hatred and finally optimism. Whether you love it or hate it there’s nothing like football and the World Cup is like nothing else in all of sport. The pain, the suffering, the bliss; it’s all real. I put myself through it every four years and I’ll keep doing so because it’s a drug. I kinda wish England had hit that reset button earlier and more frequently though. It would have saved a lot of broken hearts through tempered expectations.