Yes, our great footballing enemies are Germany and Argentina. No, it’s nothing to do with shooting wars. 1966: 1970: 1990: 1996. And worse, for some of us: 1982, 1986. Steady Mike, sanctioning vengeful triumphalism after the 1-5: they deserve it, for all they’ve done to others. He was right: I’d almost forgotten. 1966: 1986: 1998: and the worst of these is 1986.
For football has its own history, a fact crass critics never get. I’m not the only football fan who can remember producing crude arguments against the ongoing Falklands War in a primary-school lunchroom, yet still lacks love for any Argentinian squad thanks to subsequent events. Anyone who can’t grasp the meanings of ’1986′ can’t be expected to see the difference between 1982 and 1986 – and thus should hold their peace.
(The exile of Ossie Ardiles: from that barbarous memory, draw a lifetime’s indignation against war.)
People are wearing the colours: red and white casually up and down the capital streets. A sense of purpose, not display: as if the spectacle is for their own benefit, to confirm to themselves their own commitment – not for our eyes.
A seat in a corner, looking down the long hall at the screen: I can barely make out the ball. But at least Motson is loud enough, prefacing it all with memories of commenting on skiing, spending most of the match making metaphors of the lunch we, unlike Trevor and him, were supposed to be having. Extra meaning of all this, value-added gabble. Football’s hysterical rise has made Motson a beloved entertainer, a cartoon narrator, but also a privileged phrasemaker. Today’s scripted trifles are the most important trivia of his life. And he knows it, and does it well: I’m not sure, catching frantic sentences from the volume-bumped speakers, that he’s ever been better.
The crush through which the bar won’t deliver a bowl of chips, but through which the fleeced punter must somehow pass. ST likens England to Liverpool, though three of the midfield are from Manchester United. – Go on Emile! – Well out! (Comedy violence of our rhetoric: but we’ll never retract a word.)
The game: we hold our own. After 25 minutes or so I’m saying, we’ll look back at this as the period when England played well – the spell when we played well against Argentina. For retrospect does funny things to these games: and in the aftermath I revise upward my assessment of the performance. It comes to look a pattern: defensive solidity through one or two early scares (Batistuta a header or two, as well as deliberately careering into everyone), then England starting to break and giving us hope. Owen against the post – and what you feel, for Motson said it, was Owen vs Argentina: 1998 again – a team that’s still scared of him. History, meaning: the thrill that back-story, suddenly adduced, can add to the field’s flux. Ups and downs: solidity: we’re in this game – no more than that, not against Argentina. Distance of the screen, room full of people: hard to take in or credit perceptions. Owen goes down in the box: pause as all rise: such a surprise to hear it called a penalty. (Is the rest of the country the same? Part of the real meaning of these moments: sudden lateral imagining.)
‘You can smash them now!’ (We can’t hear this, for the sound of invisible things being smashed.)
The surprise of being ahead. At this stage being ahead doesn’t mean Winning The Game: it means, cor – we’ve gone ahead vs Argentina: we might not lose – in fact, you never know what could happen. Reality is contingency.
Second half: Argentina’s pressure makes me later reckon they’ve shaded the game – till ST points out how unincisive their attacking was. One header saved on the line, some last-ditch tackles: but also a lot of long shots blazed aimlessly over. Possession, but they don’t do great things with it. And we do. Scholes hitting a 30-yard volley on target at the keeper: Sinclair on an impressive run: Owen dragging one wide. And Teddy on, giving me a new focus, and ending a 17-pass move with an explosive volley. So we deserve the unexpected win, when the end comes: that’s what I come to agree to, after the end.
The streets – dull and damp – charged with new atmosphere: a nation, at least a city centre, needing to react somehow to what had happened. Trafalgar Square: already a horde of blokes on the ledges below the pillar. They run through each chant they can think of, fling cans, wrap themselves in flags, boot a football around. (Women in flags: a new sight.) It’s exciting – especially the way the passing buses and taxis hoot their horns, and motorcyclists slow and slap the hands of revellers. ST calls it the Carnival, after the Parade of the Jubilee: and he’s right about the continuity and contrast. Yet aggression is excessively in the air: as though these men can’t just be happy, but must shout and throw things. Bitterness is understandable in defeat, I should know; but what about sweetness and light in victory? That seems missing. (So does Paul Gascoigne: typical that TV should later show him here, but that he’s absent in real life.)
11:50: Gary. – All right? Had a good day? Few drinks? Thought so. Bet you don’t mind seeing it again, though – we don’t. Teddy, afterwards: we’re going to go and rub it in… would have been great to knock the Argentines out… Sven: enjoy this – a nice dinner – perhaps a glass of wine – stay focused. Hansen calls Owen ‘Michael’, every time. Reidy’s ‘had a few drinks’; when he refers to ‘Emlyn Heskey’, he says ‘I told ya’. ‘I still fancy Argentina… but I’ve got more wrong than right’.
The Jubilee is forgotten: the football lingers, no, endures. Cars still fly St George’s flag: Trevor Brooking still calculates permutations. Wednesday, 12th June: Motson talks breakfast rather than lunch. England go through quietly, on tip-toe, not disturbing anything: Nigeria go out with dignity. It all seems to matter less than Argentina’s exit: a tremendous achievement, a joint project between England and Sweden, a footballing equivalent of some Nordic Channel Tunnel (or – Concorde). Suddenly we like Sweden: good lads, wronged by Argentina (that should have been a red the other way), still seeing them off for us, finishing the job. The World Cup can hardly get better than it’s been. Nor can the summer, which can only fall away from this blast-off: all this pageantry near and far, all this live feed frenzy.
Tournaments generate momentum in teams (notably England, at least on some past occasions), but also in nations back home: interest in this World Cup builds as it goes on. Overhear talk of talk of football: conversations about how surprised the speakers are to be interested. Travellers on trains, looking at pictures of Seaman or Heskey and asking each other what their names are. People who don’t care about football, at some level caring: allowing themselves to care, or finding that they care, or making the effort to care. A sandcastle, perhaps: transitory feeling, to last however long England endure. Two contrasting ways, then, to link footy and the Jubilee. One: the occasion unearths an interest and belief, taps a vein the populace didn’t know was there. Two: people like occasions: like to follow a public narrative or spectacle, as long as it lasts: then they return to the lives they led all along.
It’s The Year Of The Underdog! The World’s Been Turned On Its Head! It’ll Never Be The Same Again!