It had been my serious intention to pen a few thoughts this day on the merits of England’s soccer team and its glorious long-awaited burst from round ball bottom feeders to capture the beautiful game’s World Cup trophy. Alas, as I have long been aware, the way to hell is paved with good intentions and, as Robert Burns once wrote, “the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang ‘aft agley’.”
A few days ago, things went badly aft agley for England’s soccer team as an inspired 11 men from Croatia recovered from a one goal deficit, went on to win a semi-final contest 2-1 and left England exhausted, bewildered, dismayed and sadly aware – if they knew their Burns’ – of the line warning what happens when best-laid schemes go astray “and leave us nought but grief and pain for promised joy.”
It was back in 1966 that England made it all the way to the final game of the World Cup winning gold by defeating Germany 4-2 in extra time. A well-remembered game because England’s winning goal was disputed and remained under challenge until a couple of years ago when, in 2016, modern technology re-created the moment when Geoff Hurst’s shot hit the crossbar and bounced down across the goal line. You can watch it all in slow motion via Google.
From its 1966 peak England bobbled about, sometimes looking like a possible threat, others like a third-rate side trying to avoid relegation – until two years ago. Coincidental with the high-tech vindication of its 1966 victory, the Football Association (FA) appointed Gareth Southgate, a new young manager. He had two years to select and whip a dubious England team into shape and hopefully play reasonably well in the World Cup contest. He wasn’t expected to beat the world’s best, just to show challenge and restore a bit of old country pride.
The same year a rock band, The Lightning Seeds, launched a rap song – Football’s Coming Home. It was a prophecy and didn’t draw much attention until the Cup preliminaries began and English fans started singing – singing? Well chanting, rapping, whatever – “football’s coming home … everyone knows the score, they’ve seen it all before … they just know … they’re so sure that England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away … but I know they can play ‘cause I remember Three Lions on a shirt … I never stopped dreaming … football’s coming home.”
It became the team song and the Three Lions, which had been the team’s logo since its first international match against Scotland on November 30, 1872, quickly became The Young Lions who responded to the new and unusual support from sports writers and the thousands who watch club games every Saturday.
They went into their first 2018 World Cup match among the clubs least favoured to win. They finished in the final four and moved up as possible Cup winners but fell at the final hurdle. As the BBC sportswriter put it, their “good work undone by tired legs and perhaps a withdrawal of ambition to protect a precious lead.”
King Henry I was the first English leader with a lion on his standard in 1100. He added a second shortly after his marriage to a lady whose father had a lion on his shield. In 1152, Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine whose family crest was a lion. And it was Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) who used three golden lions on a scarlet background. It has been used by every king or queen since.
Rumour has it that the Young Lions preferred The Lionheart design – three lions on a red shirt background as their lucky game shirts. When they lost to Croatia they played in white. Inconsequential? Of course. We all know shirts don’t win soccer games any more than images of lions on flags and shields won battles for Crusader knights. Belgium popped the lucky red shirt Saturday morning before it had a chance to grow a legend. A good thing too if England is to continue with its promising path of a return to former greatness in the game it once owned and taught the world to play.
They say it’s the sign of a great teacher when students build on knowledge taught and rise to heights their mentor only dreamed of. That is certainly true in soccer and was clearly demonstrated these last few weeks as new names appeared on the list of challengers for the game’s greatest bauble. In rapid order once triumphant South American teams were sent packing by less flamboyant but harder working and ever confident teams.
England was lethargic in Saturday’s battle for bronze. Belgium was full of energy and far more determined to win a spot among the champions – even it was third. And in the cup final Sunday, one of the teams that started with little chance of surviving for more than a few early games will be challenging France for the right to be crowned the world champion of soccer.
France, powerful, classy, are favoured to win. So was England when they played Croatia and the small nation came back from one goal down to win their spot in the final. England, team, and country, were shocked as France and fans will be if the blue shirts lose.
I’ll be rooting for Croatia and thinking how wonderful it would be if nations could settle all their differences this way.