Monday, 16 July 2018

It Nearly Came Home...

They think it's all over. It is now. Yeah, I'm sorry, but if there's ever an appropriate time to read that sentence, it's the morning after the World Cup final. Back on 18th June - the morning of the first England match - I wrote that I was feeling a general indifference to this tournament. But blimey, that changed over time. Once England got going, and I was showered in the Southgate charisma, I was glued to it all. It was my first full-throttled unabashed enjoyment of international men's football since 2002. The vibe was different. The national team was charming. Gone were the egos of recent years, leaving the cohesive efforts of a bunch of lads that seemed as unassuming as they were talented. It was all so satisfying.

There are plenty of standout footballing moments. The ones that in years to come, will cause a misty eye and a hazy look, as memories surface of Maguire's headers, Pickford's saves, or Walker's pace. But for me, this tournament has been about more than just football. I apologise for sounding like a dick there. I don't mean that kicking a ball on a field equates to some transcendental experience that non-football fans need to embrace or be spiritually bankrupt. No, I mean that in amongst the marvellous football, there have been moments of utter loveliness off the pitch too. Whilst many will pick their top ten goals, saves or tackles, I give you... 

My Top Ten Moments of Unexpected Loveliness from the 2018 World Cup.

1. The redemption of Gareth Southgate. Because I put these things in perspective, I never felt anything other than sympathy and concern for Southgate after his missed penalty resulted in the elimination of England from the 1996 Euros. (The first time I watched a match in the pub!) Yet for all that, it was an incident that followed him round in the years that followed. Watching his utter glee at winning the penalty shoot out against Colombia, was quite the moment. He was so happy! And because he has shown - via interviews, temperament and management choices - that he isn't an arse, it was a joy to watch. Most touchingly, however, was the fact that he comforted the Colombian player that missed the penalty that knocked his team out against England. It was a classy move and showed Southgate to be worthy of all the positive attention he has received over the past month. And when Croatia finally knocked out Southgate's solid England side, it was testament to the ethos he has created, that their first action after the final whistle was to stand, face the fans and applaud them. It was all such a lovely change from previous scenes of individuals sobbing self-pityingly into the pitch.

2. This was a feminist World Cup. Or something. Statements like that were fanfared in the media, as experienced England players such as Eni Aluko and Alex Scott took their places alongside The Men in the studios of the BBC and ITV. And because intelligent and accomplished women have to work their arses off to prove their worth, when Gary Neville and Ian Wright are paid for turning up and finding the right room, it made for a refreshing and (for me) more enjoyable display of punditry. (The vid shows the randomness of Patrice Evra clapping his colleague, Eni Aluko for doing her job. Not, as the furore suggested, a sackable offence in my opinion. Rather, a fairly common occurrence where a woman has performed to a decent standard and shown up the lack of effort from the more established male name.) But then the early stages of the tournament were over and the female pundits were sidelined to the literal sidelines of the pitch, or the pre-recorded films played in the build up. Hey ho. What are baby steps today turn into leaps and strides tomorrow. 

3. For all the hurrah about the inclusion of female pundits for the first time, Jacqui Oatley coolly and calmly got on with her ITV presenting job with aplomb. She's been around for a long time now, being the first female football commentator for Match of the Day in 2007. Having had to put up with what can be either be described as silly temper tantrums, or out and out misogyny from fans who didn’t want to hear a female voice commentate on the beautiful game, she just got on with it. Always a safe pair of hands in the anchor role, she knew her stuff, kept it flowing and showed what professionalism really is. 

I often try to recreate
Gary's expression here.
Harder than it looks.
4. On the other channel, Gary Lineker gave us another equally valid version of professionalism. Just because someone excelled on the pitch doesn't mean they can present live sports coverage for a major tournament. I vaguely remember thinking he was a bit wooden when he replaced Des Lynam on Match of the Day in 1999. But those days are long gone. His boyish giddiness and irrepressible excitement as England got closer and closer to the semi finals was endearing. For those of us that remember his England career with nostalgic affection, it was a lovely watch. 

5. Something closer to home now. Via the must-read shenanigans of the family WhatsApp group, I have anecdotal evidence that times they are a-changing. My four year old niece, upon listening to her Dad talk about the last World Cup, interrupted him to ask if he meant the women's or the men's tournament. This makes me deeply happy. I couldn't have imagined such a world when I was four.

I would have loved to have found a gif
of Delph chatting to Logan after the match.
But I couldn't. This will have to do
6. Back to Russia. England midfielder Fabian Delph, flew home after playing Panama, to be with his wife for the birth of their third child. Then he flew back. And finally, to complete the set of actions that would never have happened under any other manager in the history of English football, Gabby Logan asked him about it in the post-match interview after the Sweden game. Delph talked about how great his wife was ('She's a machine!') and that he would get back to Gabby once a name had been chosen. Logan seamlessly moved from post-match analysis to human interest story, and everyone loved it. This was unprecedented and groundbreaking, whilst at the same time being utterly normal behaviour in any other walk of life.

Managers being chuffed when
their team scores, is always lovely. 
7. Time for a bit more Gary Lineker. In the later BBC coverage, there was a short film shown of the route to the Italia '90 semi-final against West Germany. Lineker was there as a young striker, alongside the manager of the day, the great Sir Bobby Robson. Once the film had ended and Present Day Lineker had to speak into the camera, he couldn't. He was emotional and choked up. He reminded anyone who needed it, that as much as there have been some utter horrors in football over the years, there have also been some shining examples of loveliness. The love Lineker had for his late manager was etched on his face as he muttered 'Bobby, bless him,' before turning to the pundits on his right, and carrying on. 

8. The change of expectation over England was interesting. It can be summed up in the way people said, 'It's coming home.' For a while there was a lot of sark. It's coming home, yeah right. Then after the Tunisia and Panama wins, people said it in a nervous, slightly disbelieving way. 'It's like it might be nearly coming home, perhaps.' Then after the group stages had gone, and the quarter final was assured, even the most disbelieving of fans went full kit wanker, and shouted 'It's Only Bloody Coming Home' fifteen times an hour, whilst tweeting memes of cats miaowing the same sentiments. There was a confidence in the national team that we hadn't seen since... forever. Fine, it didn't help us make the final, but we got further than we've had for so many years. Perhaps we needed something to be positive about in these troubled times. Perhaps the England team proved from day one, they were worth supporting. But the sense of actual possibility was a welcome change from the entitled swagger of previous teams, that didn't deliver from the start.

From George's Twitter feed.
9. More on It's Coming home. I was filled with admiration for George Ezra last week. He was on Twitter encouraging people to get Three Lions to number one, instead of letting his single Shotgun remain there any longer. It put me in mind of Ed Sheeran. In a bad way. When there was a campaign to get Last Christmas to number one for the first anniversary of George Michael's death, Ed decided to ignore any lurking charitable tendencies he may have had, and instead released three versions of his own single so that the combined sales would push him into the top spot. Booo to Ed, but a standing ovation for George Ezra. This tournament has brought out the best in people.

10. At the end of the day, England got to the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup. They got down to the last three teams. For people who've been enjoying the (horrific!) heatwave, this is what summer has been all about. It's what 1990 was all about when I was twelve. It's a new sporting, cultural, and social history for today's youth to emotionally reminisce over in years to come. Just without a Pavarotti trigger. It's given a bit of sporting hope to the nation. It's even made me watch men's football again.  

I suppose what all these examples and moments of loveliness show, is that people, including sportspeople, aren't machines (apart from Fabian Delph's wife, of course.) It's nice when their humanity shines through. For me, sport is much more enticing to watch, when it's about people doing exceptionally impressive things, rather than robots performing as programmed. So, there we are. It's another four years until we see if this young team can continue to develop and have another bash at World Cup glory. The future looks bright. And for those that want the buzz of international competition sooner, I'll see you next year for the Women's World Cup in France. Il rentre à la maison!

Have a lovely week folks.

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