Once upon a time, there was a nation that ruled the world. We ruled the air, the waves, trade and commerce, and of course, the 106 x 68 metres of green grass given over to the “beautiful game”.
From its emergence in the late 1800s as a recognisably distinct sport from other ball kicking and throwing games on the university playing fields of Eton until the middle decades of the 20th century, there wasn’t a nation that came close, or so we assumed.
We had taken football to the world. It was our game, our gift to humanity, a sport for the world to embrace and we were the best. This was how it was supposed to be, forever!
It did not quite work out that way. As all empires and kingdoms surely crumble, so did our dominance of this global phenomenon. We were very much left behind. The world learned to play the game, and by the time 1966 came around, we had yet to win a World Cup or the relatively new European Championships. However, this time we were at home, and glory would be ours. As if to make it even more poignant we had beaten the old enemy in the final. How sweet victory tasted!
If one takes a little time to look past the “they think it’s all over” moment, and the images of Sir Bobby Moore holding the trophy aloft, it is not hard to see that we were very lucky indeed to win our one and only World Cup. This victory, great for national pride as it was, ultimately entrenched the idea that we were a global force on the world footballing stage.
The 1970s and 80s perfectly demonstrated how short of the mark we really were, barely qualifying for global events, while other nations such as France, Italy, Germany, Brazil and Argentina dominated. Even the Dutch, who seemed perennial runners up too, had still managed to create a beautiful style of “total football”, that the great Johan Cruyff would take to Spain, where it would go on to become the globally recognised way of best playing the game.
England had become ‘second tier’ at best. I remember being far more fascinated with watching the likes of Zico and Rossi strut their stuff and collecting stickers of obscure Peruvian goalkeepers than swapping them for Terry Butcher to complete my England team page. We did have 2 world-class players back then, sadly, both of them had to fight for the only position they could play in, between the sticks!
It was in 1990 that football had its resurgence in the UK. The wider general public rediscovered their love of their local and national team. For the previous decade and a half, snooker had captivated the national consciousness and while we watched coloured balls rolling on green baize, all over the world other nations were mastering the ball on the green grass, surpassing us in every area of the sport. For the best part of two decades football had been for small crowds of “ultra” fans watching slow, sluggish, and one-dimensional outfits while legendising those of the previous era and desperately hanging on to ‘66, and all that!
Italia ‘90 changed that. TV was changing, the game was being sold to us like never before. Pavarotti belted out Nessun Dorma, we discovered a love of opera, as well as a new love of football, and the nation took note. There was genuine hope in the air!
We came so close, an exhilarating semi-final, lost cruelly on penalties to the old foe. Yet they returned as heroes, a sense of being robbed prevailed, it was almost as if we had really won it, despite what the history books say.
Football once again became the ‘people’s game’ for a short period, at least until it came at a hugely inflated price to watch, both live and on TV. This was, in the main, thanks to the juggernaut that is the Premier League and their counterparts at Sky, who transformed it into something almost wholly unrecognisable from the game of my childhood. Roy Keane wasn’t wrong when he spoke of the “prawn sandwich brigade” that had robbed the common man of our national game.
These days I’m much happier watching Sunderland play Lincoln in a league 1 play-off than watching 22 millionaire super-fit humans, trained to within an inch of their lives playing out a game so tactical and “managed” that it’s quite frankly like watching paint dry.
My real joy now is watching my hometown of Leatherhead play in front of 300 people who go for the simple love of the game, the pint in the clubhouse at full time, the sense of belonging to one’s community. It feels like a reconnection with the days when football really was the people’s game rather than one owned by hedge funds, oligarchs, and even Nation States……I don’t know, maybe I’m just getting old!
But here we are once again, one nation under the football Gods, the Euros a day or 300 late but certainly not a dollar short, these young men lining up to represent our glorious flag as we march toward almost certain quarter or semi-final heartache.
We are all England fans again, flags flying from car roofs, petrol stations doing a roaring trade in stickers and the like, the cross of St George draped in house and shop windows, pubs (Covid permitting) rammed full of raucous fans who believe this is our time, surely!
For a couple of weeks we will all come together - whatever your colour, creed, class, gender or politics, if you wear the 3 lions, you’re in! For a brief moment in time, every couple of years, England really is its very own “united” kingdom.
This weekend sees the start of yet another international tournament and another opportunity to put behind us the now “55 years of hurt” that no one would have imagined when Skinner and Badiel wrote the timeless ‘3 lions on a shirt’ anthem. Football was meant to have come home in 1996 when again we all truly believed 30 years of hurt was surely coming to an end. European glory was ours to be had, our “Golden generation” at home, Venables in charge, Gazza “fully matured” and….SHEARER !!! We made the semi-final and played the old foe again and we all thought that surely, ‘this time, more than any other time’, but alas no!
It broke mine and the heart of a nation that game! Once again, we had lost on penalties and failed to reclaim our God-given right to be the best, and the lights went out! Until 2018.
By 2018 a new generation of young English players had had a decade or so growing up with and fighting for their right to play alongside the world’s greatest players who now ply their trade here, making their millions representing community football teams far from their homeland. This, when seen from a positive angle, although still arguable, had resulted in a new raft of talented English footballers, better equipped than ever to meet the world game on its new terms.
Our national team, ironically, was placed in the hands of one of the players who knows ‘the hurt’ better than most, he took the reins to much criticism at the time but to everyone’s surprise, we once again, albeit without great aplomb, made it to a World Cup semi-final. This time though our young starlets failed to produce and quite frankly, got found out a bit. The history books on this “achievement” probably flatters to deceive.
But now, 3 years on, with sales of waistcoats selling almost as well as the New England kit, we brace ourselves yet again with our ‘More Mature’ second ‘Golden Generation’ taking to the field in search of glory. Again, we are a united nation, determined to see our birthright as the keepers of the global game restored. The big question on everyone’s lips is, can our young lions finally do what 3 generations of players have failed to do?
As the best football song by a mile suggests, all the hurt never stopped a nation dreaming!
COME ON ENGLAND !!!
Below I have suggested a few ideas that may be useful in the classroom over the coming weeks. Mindful of course, that not everyone loves “the beautiful game”.
- Use invented nouns and adjective to describe a match/match day scenario (think A Clockwork Orange).
- Write a profile of your favourite player and present it to the class.
- Compare and contrast 2 players/teams.
- Write a brief history of your favourite team.
- Should footballers be paid as much as they are? Discuss.
- Who is the greatest footballer of all time? Discuss.
- Create your team of all time and explain your choices.
- Watch a segment of a match with the sound down and do your own commentary.
- Make some top trumps of teams or players and play the game.
Written by Trevor Kelly