“Why don’t you support England? You’re English!”, shouted my mate, he and his Cypriot family jumping around in jubilation as David Beckham’s penalty gave England a 1-0 lead over Argentina.
It was 2002, I was 15, and other than Owen Hargreaves I hated the English national team. I hated the jingoistic, nationalist fervor before tournaments. The crosses of St. George that would suddenly appear on cars. I hated the skinheads, the lager-louts, “Eng-er-land”, that f*cking brass band, the hype, the callers on TalkSport, the presenters on TalkSport, my friend’s mum that read the Daily Mail and wanted to “do the Argies”.
At school we started to play English kids vs. others at lunch time. Being born in Canada gave me the liberty to be on the same side as a French-Turk who felt the same way I did, an Italian – the best player among us by a mile – who laughed, bemused at the English’s confidence in a team that had achieved nothing, several Indians who had plenty to fight back against and an assortment of others. We never played harder than during those games.
Similarly, I rarely wished harder than I did in those days for an England loss. At World Cup 2002, they engaged trench warfare to labour their way through a tricky group stage, drawing with Sweden (always), narrowly DOING THE ARGIES, and then drawing 0-0 with Nigeria, who really should have won. England had been boring, conservative, tight at the back. Worryingly sensible.
It set up the English for a second-round match against Denmark – a decent side who had topped their group ahead of Senegal, Uruguay and a self-imploding France. England spanked them 3-0, with only 37% possession. Owen and Heskey scored. A third clean sheet in four games. The papers went berserk. I felt sick.
The thing was, you see, that yes, England faced Brazil in the Quarter Final. But if somehow they were to get through that, their road to victory was clear. France were out, Spain weren’t a thing, Germany, while Germany, weren’t quite as Germany as they had been before and have been since, Turkey had lit up the tournament but would crash out at some stage, of course, and the South Koreans could surely only rig their progress so far.
Rivaldo took a speculative crack. Butt won the ball back. Scholes feinted, slipped Danny Mills free on the right. A rare Mills pass through the lines and Heskey was facing the Brazilian defense with space to run into. One absolutely rubbish pass in the general direction of Michael Owen and a Lucio mistake later, and Owen was clipping the ball over the keeper. 23 minutes gone. 1-0 England. School was going to be awful.
For 22 more terrible minutes, England held their lead. What’s more, they were the better team. This was it. They were finally going to do it. They were finally going to win something. We’d never have to hear about 1966 again. It would be 2002, now. “What a year!”, they’d say. “Slobodan Milosevic was tried, the Queen Mother died, Switzerland joined the UN and England won the World Cup. The people swam in golden rivers of lager and ‘Eng-er-land Naa Naa’ was the default ringtone on every phone.”
Fortunately for me and English town centres across the country, Ronaldinho wasn’t having any of it. The goofy magician picked up the ball on the half-way line and bumbled forward, his hair bobbing left and right, his body swaying, legs orbiting the orb between them at light-speed and slow motion simultaneously. For all this wizardry, he ran in a straight line right down the middle, wisely slipping the ball off to Rivaldo, who stroked it home.
The relief was incredible, and the joy compounded after half time as a Ronaldinho free kick floated fortuitously over David Seaman to give the Brazilians the lead. England literally huffed and puffed in the heat, but despite playing most of the second half against 10 men, couldn’t find an equalizer. I was saved.
Brazil went on to beat Turkey and a lackluster Germany in a final so boring that my friend and I ignored most of it, choosing instead to focus on our Inter Milan save on Championship Manager.
England haven’t threatened to win a major tournament since, and my heart has thanked them for it. This time, however, I would mind less if they did. Jamie Vardy aside, a new, far more likable generation of players, a thoughtful, intelligent manager in Southgate and a largely broken sense of national confidence has made any England victory far more palatable.
No one need hold their breath.