Football might not be coming home, but love’s got the world in motion.
Sometimes a summer tournament comes round and you watch it. And sometimes a summer tournament brings with it every minute of every summer tournament you’ve ever watched in your life, trawls your memories, digs through your emotions, and leaves you weeping into a pint of nostalgia.
Just occasionally, a tournament makes you twitch a hint of future nostalgia for itself, before it’s even finished.
England are out like we all knew they would be, except when we thought, madly, that maybe they wouldn’t.
But along the ride, Russia 2018 has insisted charmingly that I revisit England’s two greatest epics of the last thirty years.
First, Italia 90.
It would take too long to go in detail through the tragic, transformative drama of that competition. Watch James Erskine’s 2010 documentary One Night in Turin for a moving depiction of the events that took place. As Peter Bradshaw put it in his Guardian review of the film, when, at the documentary’s close, Nessun Dorma plays,
“it all comes flooding back, and I do mean flooding: as unbearably sad as ever. Italia 90 paved the way for Nick Hornby, for Tony Parsons, for dad-lit, for lad-lit, for men being open about their emotions. Paul Gascoigne cried at his second yellow card, and legitimised a spectacle that found its most extravagant expression seven years later at the Diana funeral.”
In truth, even just that poignant phrase alone, one night in Turin, can cause within me a pang of melancholy and longing. Nothing would ever be the same.
Nothing would ever be the same, Gazza.
And on, then, Russia would inevitably take me, to Euro 96, at which, just as at Italia 90, England had crashed out on penalties, again to Germany, again in the semi-finals, this time at home.
The full intensity of that tragedy had tumbled like black rain around Gareth Southgate’s distraught figure, after he missed his penalty kick in the shoot-out. Southgate who, now bearded and impeccably dressed, is managing England. Southgate who in Russia this summer washed away the emotional stains of 1996. He did this before England even reached their semi-final against Croatia, by displaying managerial and personal class from the outset, and being the man in charge when England–finally, at the fourth time of asking–won a world cup penalty shoot-out, against Colombia in the last sixteen.
And 96, of course, was when The Lightning Seeds, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner released their tongue-in-cheek England anthem, Three Lions. A song which is simultaneously cosy and self-deprecating, and–contradictorily–rousing and makes me think that… actually… football’s coming home.
I’m joking of course, I didn’t think football was coming home.
Except when I did, because it was.
So where now for England? What shall we do now that football is still somewhere else, abroad, stuck in customs?
The chance the England team was presented with this year was one in a million. The tournament opened up and they were given a clear route to the final. Dispatching Tunisia and Panama in the group stage? Should have been easy, and was. A lost tie against Belgium that didn’t matter. Penalty redemption against Colombia and then on to a pedestrian Swedish side, after which a win against Croatia would have put them in to the last match. Not a single world cup winner between England and a final against France.
As at Italia 90, Euros 96 and 04, and perhaps even France 98–at which England played well in their penalty loss to Argentina and could have gone on a good run–it’s one that will live on as a definitely could have been.
This year, the fixtures aligned, and a rare bond between players, coach, supporters and media became pronounced. England won’t get an opportunity like that again, they’ll have to do it the hard way from here on in, but there is, at least, a sense that they’re still in motion.
And so England must be analytical, ruthless, and not get soaked by those crashing waves of emotion.
Or at least, not until the summer’s over.