Guest Post by Peter Worrall
Last Saturday at 9:45 a.m., I was reeling in agony on Gary’s sofa. My stomach seized, and I felt nausea grow. I grabbed a throw pillow and squeezed it to my chest. I still had an hour to go of watching England in the World Cup quarterfinals. England’s Maguire had scored after thirty minutes. I felt hope rising in me, and I tried to beat it down. I began to think England could win against Sweden and advance to the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time since 1990. Like an idiot, I even began to believe they could make it to the finals like they did in 1966.
My mind was trying to tell me soccer is a trivial game of no consequence. Social conditioning from my father told me that if I relaxed and believed, it would jinx the game and England would lose. My heart wanted England to win, but my pessimism defied logic. After a few more minutes, I simply rolled off the sofa and onto the floor and squealed like a little girl. I ran a few laps around the living room – did some pushups – in order to bring myself back on line.
One hour later, England were winning two-to-zero with five minutes to go. I still didn’t have faith. The 2004 European championship game against France haunted me. In that game, England were winning by one goal at the end of regular time. Then Zinedine Zidan scored two goals in stoppage time for the French. My friend Gary was more rational and accepted an England win against Sweden long before I could. I inwardly chastised him for ‘tempting fate.’ If England lost, I would blame his positive attitude for evoking the wrath of an angry God who would be obligated to smite the English for their presumption. It doesn’t matter how well we train or how hard we try, the fate of English soccer games are out of our hands. Because I am beholden to these unseen forces and logic is cast to the wind, I am lost in a slough of despondent uncertainty.
England games are like tearing off Band-Aids. Not the quick pull of a seasoned veteran though. Rather, each game is a teleportation into adolescence, pulling the sticky seal slowly off of hair-covered legs. That is why I feel ambivalent about England winning. On the one hand, it means I have to go through another ninety minutes of torture just to witness the execution of my dreams. On the other hand it means the team I support progresses. I might possibly witness a miracle. The present tournament has been full of miracles. However, I don’t believe England is worthy of divine intervention. I am waiting for the punchline of the joke. Surely, at some point, I will chuckle with a wry smile when I see that the joke is on me and a nation who dared to believe England was ‘coming home.’ England often breeze through qualifying, but when they come to the final stages, a goalkeeper will fumble an easy ball into his own goal. We will score a crucial goal unseen by the officials, or our formerly elite players will walk around the field in some disoriented haze. We have a history of losing penalty shoot-outs. In short, England fans have reason to feel pain.
It is like being married to a woman who constantly drops your hand and wanders off with her cell phone to text her friends. You look after her, wondering what you did to cause such pain. You conclude it was foolish to get into the relationship in the first place. Then she pops her cell phone back in her bag, acknowledges her failings, and asks you to trust her. Then she does it again … and again … and again. You love her so much that you keep coming back, but you also despise her behavior. This time, could it be possible, after years of indifference she has come back and shares the passion and the energy? This time is she worthy of the faith placed in her?
This World Cup started for England on June 18th when I was in Colebrook Village, on the edge of my home town, Plymouth, England. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to watch the team play their first game, against Tunisia, with people who understood the game. When I am in America, people are polite, but they think football is a game played with hands and wearing full body armour. If Americans hoped football was “coming home,” it would be something entirely different. So, when my mother dropped me off outside the pub a few weeks ago, it was a surprise when Kelli also jumped out of the car. I felt a little relief when she held my hand as we went in the Colebrook Inn. I felt understood. We took our drinks to a side table, and I fixed my eyes on the huge screen at the back of the room. England had a dream start and scored in the 11th minute. Harry Kane, ‘Captain Kane,’ leading the way. One of the patrons at the pub had been in the toilet at the time, and when he rushed back, we tried to banish him back to the loo so England would score again.
None of us in the pub was really surprised just a little while later when the inevitable, bizarre, dream-crusher happened. On the thirty-fifth minute, Kyle Walker spread his arms out wide at shoulder height. akhreddine Ben Youssef, seeing the opportunity, walked into the extended arm and immediately fell to the ground as if viciously elbowed. The referee bought the drama and awarded a penalty, which Ferjani Sassi promptly slotted away. Fate. The inevitable. Unbelievable but true. I complained to Kelli. I was delighted when Kelli was also indignant. I paused. I was astonished. Kelli was showing interest, so I held her hand and continued complaining for the whole second half as England tried to unlock Tunisia’s brutal defense. Injury time followed regular time and I slumped—yet another disappointing World Cup of missed opportunity. Then the world did a headstand, and Harry Kane scored a winning goal. The pub erupted—England had scored a winning goal…in a World Cup…in injury time…and our good luck patron wasn’t even back in the toilet. I began to anticipate England’s second game.
That game was on the afternoon of Sunday, June 24th. There was plenty of time for the talking heads on television to say how easy it would be for England to beat Panama. Now I was certain they would lose. There is no surer way to make a team lose than to say they cannot lose. I was relieved, in a sense, as Sunday drew closer, because I discovered the Worralls would not be able to watch the game. We only see my cousins from London once a year, and Sunday was the day they would be free. We would be meeting them in Windsor, in a park overshadowed by Windsor’s great castle. I was disappointed, but felt compelled to make the right choice: Family first, soccer second … Unless in some way the two could be combined.
On Sunday afternoon, just as the referee blew the whistle for kickoff in Russia, most of my family rose and greeted us at the park in Windsor. Nevertheless, with rising hopefulness, I noticed my cousin’s husband Michael was crouched on a blanket, trying to shade his phone. I moved over quickly to hear him say, “England have a corner. You look. They’ll score now.” Of course, I was grateful Michael had the phone and was watching the game, but he had just jinxed England’s chance to score. They promptly took the corner, and Stones thumped it in the back of the net. We told the rest of the family that England had scored—they told us that was nice—and we quietly withdrew to shade that was more substantial.
England subsequently scored so often I had to keep double-checking the score on the top left of the screen. By half time it was five goals to nil. The men in the group decided to go in search of a pub to see the rest of the game. We arrived just in time to see the ball ricochet into the goal off Harry Kane’s heel as he completed an unlikely hat trick. England finished the game six to one winners.
I found it hard to accept the reality on the screen and the reality of the world round about me. The England players were overjoyed but not surprised. My family seemed happy but not shocked. As I left the Duchess of Cambridge pub, I talked with Michael about what we had just seen. Progression out of the initial group stages was guaranteed. Their next game wouldn’t even matter. I had never seen England in this position before. We were now on another planet. Michael declared with confidence England would progress the whole way to the final and bring the World Cup home. He had predicted the goal from the corner. Maybe he was a prophet? Faith in my cynicism was wavering. ‘Impossible,’ I thought, but I humoured him with some banal conversation.
I flew back to America on June 25th knowing I should plan talks for an upcoming family camp, but my mind was full of soccer. I pictured Harry Kane scoring. I also, strangely, fantasized about playing for England myself despite my advanced years and arthritic knee. I concluded this was merely an indication of how strongly I identified with England in spite of living abroad for the last twenty-five years.
On Thursday, June 28th England played their last group game. It didn’t matter who would win. The coach protected the starters from injury, and England fielded fringe players. The game was dull because England’s opponents used the same strategy. Belgium topped the group by beating England one goal to nil, but both England and Belgium progressed. Somehow, in this situation, England got the better of the deal by losing. France, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina were all now on Belgium’s side of the draw. Spain was the only soccer super-power on England’s side, and Spain promptly lost in penalties to hosts Russia.
On Tuesday, July 3rd I watched the round of sixteen game against Colombia alone in my basement. I was a speaker at a camp last week, but my family had laundry to do. I took the opportunity to volunteer doing the laundry at home … where there was a T.V. … at the time England played Colombia. The game was ugly. The Colombians thought the American referee was allied with England. The referee called 36 fouls, 23 of them were against Colombia. The referee produced eight yellow cards, six for Colombia and only two for England. The Colombians were incensed. They argued for an eternity when Harry Kane was awarded a clear penalty and he scored from the spot in the fifty-seventh minute. I clapped my hands loud. I fell forward on the floor and did twenty-five push-ups. Then I stood nervously in the doorway to continue watching with the washing spinning behind me. England held that lead all the way through the rest of the second half.
Inevitably it didn’t last. With a familiar crushing turn of fate, Colombia scored their equalizer in the ninety-third minute of a ninety minute game. No one scored in thirty minutes of extra time. When the game went to penalties, I was done. I packed up the laundry and got into the car. No need to listen. England never win on penalties.
I couldn’t completely detach, however. As I was driving, I kept turning the game on and off on satellite radio. I couldn’t help myself. When I heard Jordan Henderson had missed his penalty kick, I finally gave it up for dead. I tried to relax. I started to realize I had my whole summer before me without having to agonize over whether England would win another game in the World Cup. England were out. They had blown their chance in the most agonizing way possible. No worries. That was the past. Time to focus on the future.
It was then that I saw a text come in from my mother in England. “Brilliant! Now we can even do penalties!” I was so convinced we had lost that I did not grasp its obvious meaning. I voice-texted back asking what she was saying. No reply. I turned the radio back on, and as I listened to the commentary, I heard them talking about England’s remarkable win, especially given their woeful penalty-taking past.
That is what led to me writhing on my friend’s couch, watching them win the quarter-final. I tried to grasp why the kicking of a ball into a net meant so much to me. I think it has something to do with empire and identity. Somehow, England under-performing at soccer reinforces a deep sense of inadequacy. I am English, and English people don’t win. We suffer defeat with dignity. We have a cup of tea and reassure ourselves that it will all come out in the wash. But the truth is…it doesn’t. My father’s words ring in my ears, “Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser.” Being English identifies me as a loser. I will never be good enough, and my country is never good enough. Sure, we win a Rugby World Cup or a boat race here and there. However, my father said, “You are only as good as your last game.” For the English, more often than not, the last game is a disappointment.
Living, as I do, at the heart of the ascendant American empire makes things worse for a Brit. We are concerned about the loss of our empire and the loss of respect that goes with it. That may have partly motivated some of the Brexit vote—a concern with a lack of autonomy or sovereignty. In short, a loss of personal power. A fear of impotence. America occupies the top spot we once did as the economic and military super-power in the world, and the English don’t like being seen as America’s lap dog. We are less-than in more than the political arena. Soccer, too, reminds us of how we have fallen. We invented the game—hence the slogan ‘Football is coming home.’ However, in soccer, Germany, Brazil, France and Argentina are the superpowers. We invented cricket. In cricket, we rarely win. In The Olympics, like politics, the USA and China dominate. With this run in the World Cup, the recent Dunkirk movie, and a respectable medal count in the last Olympics, a dormant patriotism has awoken in me. As I travel the world, I stand out as British more than I did in Britain. Somehow, though, being British has meant a reason to apologize for imperialism and financial exploitation. It has meant a chronic self-deprecation as a foundation for polite society. Watching the British goalkeeper speak proudly of his own abilities seems correct in America, but it’s not typically British. Nonetheless, this batch of players is being hailed as the new England. Their newness is in more than their playing skills. It is in their attitude.
They have faith. They are unafraid to tell others they are good at what they do. They create a new perspective on what it means to be English. It is something less gray. It is something less dull. Watching the Three Lions roar makes me want to raise my head a roar with them like their coach Gareth Southgate. However, for now I will hold on to my throw pillow with white knuckles, stranded between the patterns of the past and my hope for an unanticipated future.