Football Fantasies….

The Englishmen couldn’t even qualify for the World Cup in the Seventies and the cameo appearances in the European Championship were fleeting.

In the Eighties it felt like there was a systematic loathing of working-class culture in our politics, economy and football.

By Nazarul Islam

England were at home, but it didn’t come. The gem of a team did not flower in the hothouse of a final but, after a sublime initial burst of energy, shrank further and further as the game went on. The Queen had already signed her congratulatory message, as the nation sensed victory. And then, there was a longing for glory all around them. The perfect weight of Harry Kane’s cross field pass, the magnificence of Trippier’s cross and Luke Shaw’s half volley was that longing expressed in football perfection. A moment had seized in time. And then there was nothing…

The English team turned away from glory. They retreated from a dazed Italian team. They could not tap into the wave of demonic national energy and were thus consumed by it. Sending out two players who had not kicked the ball in open play and a 19-year-old to take penalties was a cruelty that none of them deserved. Gareth Southgate builds his philosophy around bravery, kindness and ambition and none of those virtues was present in the last 75 minutes of the game.

So, the final was not a new beginning but another chapter in a long story which might also be called a chronicle of a death foretold – That foreboding of heartbreak to come and an unrealized beauty.

As a child, I had accompanied my uncle to watch Dacca’s favorite—The Aga Khan (Gold Cup) Football Tournament. I also have the first memories of a confused sense of weirdness and impending heartbreak, again tied up with football, and particularly Indonesia and Iran, the best overseas teams in the race for the Gold Cup.

I can still see through my thirteen-year-old eyes, the fuzzy screen of our big fat black and white telly in the lounge with its dodgy aerial. The only clarity was an intense white dot when you turned it off. My brother insisted that I lay completely still on the floor while we played so that I wouldn’t disturb the picture. I remember the blurred insanity of the ball bouncing down off the crossbar and my overexcited confusion as the players ran in dreamtime. I lay on the floor crying, lying completely still. It was all too much.

The European Cup Final must have turned that way for many young game lovers, all over the world!

Perhaps, this was also my first experience of heresy. There was the shock of hearing German Jewish relatives say it wasn’t a goal, that the ball did not cross the line. That sent me into a spin from which I’ve never really recovered. What did they mean Russian linesman? And then there was the lingering heartbreak of Jimmy Greaves. I was as sure as you could be sure of anything that he was the greatest striker in England and he was dropped from the team in favor of a West Ham player.

He said that when the final whistle blew he felt like the loneliest man in the world and that he was never the same again. Well, that could have made the two of us. It was the beginning of a lifelong argument with the FA management that defined the outcome of this tournament – A reluctance to trust the wild brilliance of English football.

I was a far more mature nine in 1970, and armed with a full Esso collection of world cup player coins collection that I proudly shared. It took me ages to get Paul Reaney, and he broke his leg and couldn’t even go to Mexico. I would stare for hours at the profile of Frances Lee and Colin Bell, Terry Cooper and Peter Bonetti – And all the feelings of heartbreak and weirdness.

Bobby Moore got arrested and jailed for four days for stealing a bracelet in a Bogota hotel. What was that all about?

And then the ecstasy of going two goals up – Back Home, they were really behind them when they were far away. And then it all fell apart – The numb awfulness of Germany equalizing and then scoring the winner in extra time. English fans must have felt like they’d jumped off a mountain and was falling through space. Something inside died and one couldn’t really engage for two decades after that. That feeling that something was going wrong and no one was doing anything about it.

The Englishmen couldn’t even qualify for the World Cup in the Seventies and the cameo appearances in the European Championship were fleeting. It seemed they were playing football in a parallel universe. The big number nine, the concrete feet. Obviously, they appeared to be simultaneously brutal and naïve. It was something unique and completely dissatisfying.

Don Revie disappeared in a puff of Saudi smoke. Tony Curry. And even when they had finally qualified in 1982 they wouldn’t play Glen Hoddle. It seemed obvious that English Football did not trust English footballers who were touched with the gift of passing – Nor the dribblers.

Blame the management not the workers. In the Eighties it felt like there was a systematic loathing of working-class culture in our politics, economy and football. I had also clocked on for ‘86 and witnessed the two faces of Maradona but never felt that we were any more than a walk on part in his apotheosis.

(To be continued)

Nazarul Islam

The Bengal-born writer Nazarul Islam is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. He is author of a recently published book ‘Chasing Hope’ – a compilation of his 119 articles.
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