Not Quite Home
I think I knew it would end in penalties. That seems to be the fate of England- but for nearly two hours before that last kick, I had hope. England scored after about two minutes. It was unbelievable, a dream start for England and then well, then the nerves began. They made it through the first half and deep into the second half and it was just getting harder and harder and the Italians were probing more and more and the equalizer was perhaps, inevitable. It felt inevitable and once they got to extra time, it seemed like a thirty-minute stay of execution for the penalty shoot-out.
I always used to enjoy watching that movie, Wimbledon. It's perhaps one of Paul Bettany's lesser-known works, but as a romantic comedy, it's surprisingly entertaining. I've never been that good at tennis or even really watched tennis- but I have memories of summers in the UK, where Wimbledon (or as my Grandad used to call it, Wingledon) was everywhere. If there was a rain delay- this was before the retractable roof over Center Court- then what would the BBC show? Old Wimbledon Finals! The point was, that movie represented a sporting achievement that I figured I would never see in my lifetime: a British man winning Wimbledon.
Then, of course, it happened and curiously, I haven't watched that movie since.
The Red Sox broke their curse.
The Cubs broke theirs.
A 16 seed beat a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament
I don't really like basketball or baseball, yet these were sporting achievements that were amazing to see. I guess now at the very least- I can add one more to the list: I've seen England play in a major tournament final.
Granted, they haven't won one since 1966- and there was always that underlying emotion there. My parents were kids in 1966. My grandparents were all still here. Maybe I'm the only one quite as obsessed with this sport and seeing England win another title in some tournament or another. My family watches sports, but I don't think they have quite the same grasp on them as they do on me. I absorbed it all, though. The Hand of God Goal in 1986. Penalty heartbreak after penalty heartbreak. That shootout in 1998- Argentina vs England remains one of the best matches I've ever seen. That ended in heartbreak.
But you know what? Looking at the past twenty years, it's not like England has been awful. They followed up a Round of 16 exit in 1998 with two straight quarterfinals, before falling back to the Round of 16 and a woeful group stage exit in Brazil in 2014. In 2018, they made the semifinals of the World Cup.
Despite the loss, I think it's there. I hope it's there. Just looking at the match itself, England would look promising to dangerous with set pieces and counterattacks. While I could see the strategy on defense- if the Italians are going to just pass play around with short passes, there's a certain logic to just letting them do it, providing, of course, your defense holds. The problem with that strategy is that while effective for England for large swathes of the game, it made offense problematic. But this wasn't the same old plodding conservatism you'd see from England in the past either. On set pieces they looked crisp. They were always one, maybe two passes away from spring Sterling or Kane on the edge of the box and had just one of those passes connected, it could have been a very different game.
I'm not particularly crazy about Southgate throwing on Sancho and Rashford at the last possible minute just to have them both miss penalties. Rashford's tap-dancing run-up annoyed me- but in retrospect, I can see the sense in it. A goalkeeper like that, a little guile might be worth trying and Rashford's very nearly went in! Pickford's second save kept them in and while I applaud Saka for stepping up to take the penalty, he's all of 19 years old and you had to know what was going to happen if he missed- it would have been nice to see a more senior player at least step up and be like, "you sure, bro?"
But that also doesn't give Saka nearly enough credit. 19 years old and the eyes of the nation on him, the world watching and he didn't hesitate to step up and take his shot. It was on frame and had some power behind it, so I'll give him that. Throw in knowing, just knowing what was going to happen if he missed and my God, that's more courage in one 19-year-old than a lot of people have had their whole lives.
So, it didn't come home.
Fans didn't boo when they took the knee. (Protest is protest and everyone has a right to do it, but racism in soccer is a genuine problem in ways that would cause a national outcry in this country. And if you don't believe that, just look at what Rashford, Sancho and Saka had to deal with after this game. I don't understand how you cheer for a team- any time, and think that's okay to do. That's not being a fan, that's being just a terrible human being.)
The loss stings, but there's reason to hope as well. There's a lot of young talent on the English team. The women's team is pretty damn good as well.
So I'll cling to hope. If not, well in 55 years it'll be 2076 and I'll be 93. Hopefully, they'll have raised a trophy or two by then.