After over a decade, England is finally playing quarterfinals in world cup football today, something that was least predicted in Russia this time. The tryst of the Three Lions to find a perch among the last four standing since 1990 have time and again proved futile and their hopes to secure a slot in the 2006 semi-finals was finally put to rest by Portugal.
It was in the same fateful week in 2006, that I sat on the floor of a crowded local club in my village on a rainy evening, watching England walking out of the tournament after losing to Portugal. An event I’ve never had to struggle to remember. For England, star striker Michael Owen was already out of the tournament after suffering a knee injury in the group level match. On that evening of the 1st of July, an ankle injury forced England captain David Beckham to leave the field just after half-time and no sooner had I thought that the worse was over, the young promising striker Wayne Rooney was sent off by the Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo for stamping Ricardo Carvalho. For England supporters across the world, the game was almost over by then.
But, with just ten men on her side, England fought bravely for almost thirty minutes to the final whistle and the extended thirty minutes taking the game to a shoot-out. But Portuguese had the last smile as the shots of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and Jamie Carragher failed to rustle the nets. It seemed like the sad spectre of the Euro 2004 match between the two was repeated in Germany.
There, in that congested room on the first floor of an old building, reeking of sweat and tobacco, I was left alone to mourn for England. I was an insignificant fan of an insignificant team. Television cameras quickly closed in on English fans in tears. English players sat on the pitch with their head down, while the jubilant Portuguese players could be seen thanking their stars. That was the end of English football’s golden era. For me, the English squad of 2006 was one of the best English teams I saw playing. The Golden Generation. Rooney, Owen, Beckham, Terry, Lampard, Gerrard, Ferdinand, Lenon, and Coles, the list of legends went on. They were the heroes of club football in Europe and had entered the tournament with the best chance of winning the World Cup. But lady luck thought otherwise and the fans across the world grieved!
The tournaments to follow in 2010 in South Africa and 2014 in Brazil, didn’t brighten England’s prospects. They were hopeless even before the tournament began. In 2010, they could only manage a win and two draws in the group level before losing to Germany in pre-quarter for a score of 4-1. In Brazil, they were beaten by Italy and Uruguay in the group matches and flew home without finding a place in even the last 16. Those were teams of England, at least to me, without aspiration in the mind and coordination on the ground. Continuing to boast of a few big names in club football, England was still pathetic.
Before boarding for Russia this time, the England team was not a favourite of football pundits. For people who do not follow EPL, almost all the members of the English team were new names. A team devoid of any star names like Owen, Beckham, Roney etc. Nobody spoke of England. A bunch of kids they must have thought.
But everything changed at the beginning itself. Even for an ardent supporter like me, it felt like a new beginning. Finally, after a number of pathetic tournaments in the last decade the Three Lions roared again. England’s win against Tunisia and Panama was expected, while the defeat against Belgium was desired! I have watched England playing with joy and confidence after a long time. A very long time.
The pre-quarter match against Columbia was proof of it. The first knock-out level win after 2006. However the moment Jordan Henderson’s penalty was saved by David Ospina I was back to that sad day in 2006. I didn’t want to watch England losing in Penalty again. But it was history when Eric Dier scored the winning kick after Jordan Pickford brilliantly saved the shot of Carlos Bacca. England finally won their first World Cup penalty shootout and a knockout victory since 2006. I was thrilled.
Today, when Harry Kane and teammates fight Sweden in Russia, it would be my second quarter-final match of England in the world cup, after the one against Brazil in 2002 and Portugal in 2006. While the memories of those defeats still bleed, I don’t want to watch England lose again. I feel a part of the English brethren across the globe, I shout; it’s coming home.