A History of England Football Making Its Fans Sad
Yesterday's brutal loss to Uruguay was part of a long pattern of disappointment for the English national side.
England made me sad yesterday; they've done it before, they'll do it again. They did it in the worst possible way (their specialty), trailing Uruguay for most of the game and waking up abut 70 minutes in, equalizing in to give me a hint of hope, and then losing the match (and, barring miracles, exiting the World Cup at the group stage) in its last heartbreaking minutes.
I watched the game perched on a swivel chair in the Atlantic Media's offices, groaning like creaky furniture at every Uruguay near-miss and every weakly-hit England shot, and when it was over, I trudged back to my desk and was offered a prank "snake in a can" of Pringles by my mischievous co-worker Joe Reid. I opened it, the snake shot into my face, and I had no reaction at all. That's the good thing about rooting for England—it deadens you to all other catastrophes. [EDITOR'S NOTE: In my defense, I'm a huge jerk. And the snake-in-a-can was just sitting there. — JR]
I was born in New York but moved to London in 1995 at the age of nine, and the first thing I noticed at the local primary school I attended was that everyone furiously swapped football stickers and asked me “who I supported.” I quickly main-lined football as the quickest way to assimilate into the culture, branded by my peers as an Arsenal fan, and the next summer followed the 1996 European Championships, hosted in England, with the religious fervor required. England’s past glories (the 1966 World Cup win) and many tragedies (the Hand of God goal, the 1990 World Cup semi-final exit on penalties, our failure to even qualify for the ’94 cup in America) just practiced bits of history I had learned. To really forge my fandom, I had to feel the hurt for myself.
England were knocked out of Euro 96 on penalties by Germany, their most bitter rivals, at Wembley Stadium in London. The manner of the loss was particularly brutal—young defender Gareth Southgate, in his first major tournament for the team, volunteered to take the sixth kick after both sides converted the first five. He softly side-footed the ball right into the hands of German goalie Andreas Kopke. I remember being so nervous that I retreated behind the door of our living room and literally peeked in to watch the shootout, then bursting into tears when it all ended.
The saddest thing is, this is the best England ever did in my lifetime supporting the country. In the 1998 World Cup in France, they muddled through a group stage, finishing second to Romania, and battled through a 2-2 tie with Argentina (our other fiercest rival; England holds on to its war memories), a game that included a spectacular goal from 18-year-old Michael Owen and a red card for David Beckham that briefly made his name worse than mud in the UK. How did we go out? On penalties. I choked back tears that time too.
Those first two exits were the most heart-ripping; since then, I watch the team with a resigned sense of doom and refuse to let myself get worked up by any article suggesting we might have a better shot this year. I suffered through the mediocrity of the “Golden Generation,” headed by young prospects like Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole; as they aged, they became domestic superstars but never figured out how to gel as a team. In the 2002 World Cup, Brazil felled us with a nonsensical wonder goal from Ronaldinho.
In 2006, the year we were most-favored to dominate, England stumbled through to the quarter-finals (holding on against Ecuador in the second round) and went out on penalties to Portugal. I watched in a movie theater in North London, repurposed to show the game since no one has any reason to go to the movies on a day England’s playing. Raucousness gave over to quiet, resigned doom as the 0-0 game went to a shootout. When it was over, hundreds of fans, including me and my friends, filed out silently. If anyone had gotten their hopes up, no one would admit it, because that would be truly embarrassing.
By 2010, I was living in America again and amusingly enough, England were drawn against the U.S. for the group stage of the World Cup. I briefly considered that my loyalties might lie with the country of my birth, especially considering the resigned horror with which I regarded my adopted squad. But when the whistle blew on that opening game (which I ducked out of work to watch in a bar, in the middle of the day) there was no dilemma. I wanted America to suffer and lose (they didn’t). I dutifully sat through every lackluster game that year, including our second-round thumping at the hands of Germany.
Now that I’m six years removed from living in England, I’ll admit my fandom has waned somewhat—I had to read up on all the new entrants to our 2014 squad, a younger and hungrier bunch than the aging, overpaid teams of the past. And my co-workers at The Wire can testify that I watched the Uruguay match with quiet fear, not even getting excited at our equalizing goal, so inured am I to disappointment. I learned never to get my hopes up again watching from behind the door-frame, Scooby-Doo style, in 1996. But that doesn’t mean that come 2018, I won’t be sitting somewhere, resigned to despair with just a tiiiiny kernel of hope lodged in some childish back second of my brain. Because every time England loses, a tiny part of me I didn’t even know existed makes itself known to me and dies.