It’s been a month of irrational exuberance in our household.
I’m speaking of course of soccer. And it’s completely irrational. To be an England soccer fan is not too far removed from being a Buffalo Bills fan, or a Cleveland sports fan before LeBron came on the scene. Imagine a once-proud population reduced to a litany of almosts and never coulds. That’s England.
It’s been fifty years since we won the World Cup. That was in 1966, before most of today’s fans were born. As a child, I learned all the names of the 1966 squad, and I could recount the key moments of the final victory over Germany as if I’d been there. But since the 60s, it’s been a prolonged drought, fertile ground for our English pessimism and resignation. To make matters worse, we have perfected the art of losing in heartbreaking fashion, notably in penalty shootouts. In the run-up to this year’s tournament, it was wryly observed by many pundits that England had NEVER won a penalty shootout at the World Cup. Ever. And they’d tried six times!
There is no feeling like going out on penalties. Your team has played itself to exhaustion over 90 minutes of regular time, followed by 30 minutes of additional play. And when the sides still cannot be separated by a goal even after all of this, five players from each team are designated to take turns taking penalty shots: they play the best out of five, and if that doesn’t separate the teams, then it’s on to sudden death (an apt phrase indeed) – players marching from their huddles in the center circle one by one to take a lonely shot in front of the watching world. If they score, they are a hero, if they miss they are immortalized as a goat. Meanwhile, an entire nation watches – from behind couches, clutching pints in pubs, peering through neighbors’ front windows – in rapt agony.
June 30, 1998. England were playing Argentina in the Round of 16 in the World Cup in Saint-Etienne, France. I was sitting nervously on the couch of a friend on Frances Avenue here in Elkhart. Over the course of the next two and a half hours, I yelled, hyperventilated, and eventually writhed on the floor in visceral pain as England had David Beckham sent off, played bravely to a 2-2 stalemate after extra time. And then threw it all away on penalties 4-3. It's been 20 years, and I still feel the sting of that loss.
Ironically, that loss in 1998 was a high point for England. In the years that followed, we weren’t as good. In 2014, at the last World Cup, the Church of England resorted to releasing an official series of prayers for the competition. The prayer for the England squad had just two words. “Oh, God…”
So imagine my state of mind last week as England faced Colombia in yet another World Cup penalty shootout. I was on the phone with both of my boys. As each shot was taken, we would yell or groan. England went behind on the count, and I was sure we were doomed. Then, miracle of miracles, Colombia hit the bar with one shot, and had another shot saved. All we needed was for one more penalty go in. Our regular penalty-taker, Jamie Vardy, was injured. So up stepped Eric Dier – who had had a poor game. We held the phones in anguish, barely daring to breathe. He stood briefly, then stroked a perfect shot into the net. And the English team flooded onto the pitch in celebration. From across the Atlantic, I could hear my friends screaming like the schoolkids we still are. My younger son exclaimed, This is my first happy day as an England fan! I said, Same for me!
The magic lasted for six days. We went on to beat Sweden, but then lost to Croatia on Wednesday. Still, it’s been a great month, and now that England’s penalty jinx is broken, watch out world, we’re coming for you in 2022 in Qatar – and 2026 right here in the USA.
In the meantime, good luck to the teams in the final – and long live the Beautiful Game.
Music: England World Cup Theme Song - "Three Lions"