We still believe…
Once upon a time, on a tiny damp island called England, something magical happened.
The nation was divided, with people arguing over Brexit, clashes between governments, and arguments in household over whether Love Island is the best creation ever invented, or a pile of sexist, dated tripe which needs to be destroyed and thrown into the sea and never seen again (I’ll leave you to guess which team I’m on).
Then one day, many many miles away, a group of men whom most of us had never met won a football match. And the people of England gathered round their televisions, bedecked in red and white from head to toe. Some drank beer, some cider. Some were Man United fans, others would die for Chelsea. Some were Remainers, others staunch Brexiteers. But for those 90 minutes, none of that mattered. Everyone was rooting for the team from that damp little island to do well, and at least get out of the group stages and not make us an international laughing stock (can you tell we usually don’t do overly well?)
Tears, beers and lots of bad language. Eyes were covered, hands were waved, and flags flown proudly.
Contrary to our expectations, we carried on doing rather well. The team were the youngest squad in the tournament, and played quietly and determinedly, with none of the usual scandal or drama which tend to follow the team around. In a shock twist, they were making headlines for their football, not their disappointments. And the people of the damp little island started to hold their breath slightly, hardly daring to hope.
It wouldn’t be England playing if they didn’t stress the hell out of all of us and make it almost painful to watch. They pushed us to the limits when playing Columbia, allowing an equaliser in extra time to create an additional 30 minute of play. Fans around the country begged the Lions to put one in the net, whether by fluke or talent, anything to prevent us from heading to the next stage: penalties, and the inevitable defeat which would follow.
We don’t have a very good track record when it comes to penalties you see (disclaimer: this is a SLIGHT understatement).
To our frustration, extra time finished on an equaliser, and as the commentator announced that we would be going to penalties, fans around the world started saying how good it was while it lasted, how at least we got this far, how there was always 2022.
Then something miraculous happened. England pulled it out of the bag, and they won. On penalties. For the first time EVER.
And the country went absolutely apeshit.
And for the first time in a very long time, England had something we have been lacking for a long time: hope.
This country has been through the mill over the last few years. It seems the papers are hitting us daily with devastating news: tragic and senseless acts of terrorism. Brexit. An increasing murder rate in London. We haven’t had much to look forward to. All of these elements, coupled with the fact that we are regularly booted from international sporting tournaments pretty rapidly, meant that no-one had much faith in the team.
The match with Columbia changed all that.
Suddenly, people dared to hope. They started to believe. England had done the unthinkable, shaken off their preconceptions and stigma, and achieved a stunning victory.
Even Southgate cracked a smile.
World Cup fever was everywhere, with people proud to fly the flag, to wear the shirt, to support the team. ‘Our lads’ were a hot topic of conversation, and it seemed it might truly be possible. Everton fans were civil to Liverpool fan, and Manchester city was united (excuse the pun) for a few brief weeks. We flew through the quarter finals, and for the first time in years, made it to a World Cup semi final.
We didn’t win. We didn’t quite bring it home. But you know what? I’m not sure the trophy matters.
One of my strongest memories from that match wasn’t Kieren Trippier’s stunning goal four minutes in (though I was sobbing just as loudly as anyone when that happened.) It wasn’t even the agony of realising that Croatia’s second goal had hit home. It is of three England players surrounding a fallen Croation, and Dele Alli standing over him, offering a hand up. Croatia were 2-0 up at this point. We had hope, but we weren’t born yesterday; we knew there was a chance it was all over. The players themselves must have been feeling the same, yet they acted like gentlemen on the world stage, and conducted themselves with incredible dignity. I’m not saying they were perfect; there were eyebrows raised and questionable tactics on both sides (I wont go into detail about the conduct of Croatia: all I’ll say is we all watched the match.) This, for me, was one of the stand out moments of the whole tournament: young lads, under the most immense pressure, acting like decent human beings.
The whistle went, and Croatia flooded the pitch in ecstasy. All around me, grown men were sobbing. Then the camera panned to the devastated members of the England squad,and instead of the expected jeers, boos and insults, a lone voice in the crowded pub shouted “We’re proud of you lads!” This chant was taken up, and the atmosphere was one of gratitude, respect, and incredible appreciation for making it as far as we did. The comments today were full of praise for the squad, and a confidence that we can only get better, smash the Euros, and try again at Quatar. This is only the beginning of our journey.
Someone said to me that “it’s only a game.” But this World Cup was more than that for England. Gareth Southgate and his boys brought a love of football home. They brought belief and strength to a jaded, tired nation, and united the entire country with their tireless effort. They showed that it is possible to overcome even the biggest hurdles with the right mindset: England can even win a penalty shootout with the right team, belief and support. They showed that you can take on the challengers and doubters who oppose you: and win. They proved that even in times of heartbreak, you can reach out a hand to an enemy, and show compassion. They brought home all the best aspects of football, and united the country unlike anything I have ever seen.
So boys, you may have lost the match, but I would argue that you definitely brought it home. The lessons learned this summer are more important than the trophy, and I want to thank you for creating something magical. Can’t wait for the Euros, and out next shot at the glory.
Now lets smash it on Saturday, let those lions roar, and take home the bronze.
We still believe