When I was Issy’s age I was obsessed with football, much like my nephew now. I lived and breathed it; it was my life at a time when girls didn’t play football and as for the thought of a professional women’s league that was a pipe dream. Over the years my love affair with football has dwindled as I got sick and tired of overpaid egos falling over every 5 minutes, the amount of cheating that goes on and the inequality whereby the smaller teams don’t have a chance to compete through lack of funds. Of course, we’d just seen Leicester lift the premiership title but this was an exception. Whilst I still keep an eye on the premiership, gone are the days when I’d jump at the chance to go and get the papers for my mum just so I could steal the sports pages.
When it comes to the World Cup, Mexico ‘86 may have wet my appetite but it was Italia ’90 that sealed the deal. From watching the Cameroon game with my Fleetville classmates in the Pen-y-Pass hostel, Nessun Dorma sung by the late great Luciano Pavarotti, and then that night in Turin when England crashed out on penalties I was hooked. As I write this I am transported back to our living room in Barnfield Road and my mum trying to be sympathetic whilst being utterly bewildered as I sobbed uncontrollably. She had the good sense or survival instinct never to utter the words “but Emma it’s only a game” although I’m sure she thought it on several occasions.
As England fans will attest the intervening years have not been kind and in my opinion until 2018 there hasn’t been another team which has possessed the passion needed to lift the World Cup. Arguably previous teams have had more talent but didn’t possess the gumption to succeed on the world stage. 2018 saw pretty much a new team of players step up to the mantle, and step up they did. They played exciting football again and with the full three lions’ spirit. I, like so many, dared to believe I would see England in a world cup final. Yet, it isn’t this that made the 2018 World Cup so special.
We were travelling in Europe in the summer of 2018. We were in Ribe, Denmark for the first England game. I watched it with a collection of Germans, Dutch and Danish fans and somehow I knew this year it might be different.
We were in Germany when the Germans lost to Mexico. A fact that escaped Doug when he celebrated a little too enthusiastically after Mexico scored. As did the Mexicans who managed to register a small earthquake on the Richter scale which experts think was caused by Mexicans simultaneously jumping up and down with joy.
By the time, Columbia game arrived and the agony of the penalty shoot out we were Helsinki. I don’t know whether the rest of the room were more interested in the game or my reactions to what was going on. I had to both apologise and explain exactly what a bin-dipper was to some very bemused Finns. We had no TV coverage for the Sweden game but Vilnius was where I watched the Croatia game. I truly believed we could do it, and was so disappointed when we yet again came up short. The Croatian sat next to shook my hand and at least waited for me to the leave before celebrating wildly.
All these were great experiences but the final was truly inspiring. We watched it in a small TV room in Klapieda with 50 French teenagers (none of whom were born when France lifted the cup in 1998), 4 Croatians and a variety of other nationalities thrown in for good measure. The French all stood and sang La Marseillaise. Then the Croatians, who were not to be out done, stood and sang their national anthem and we settled to watch the game. With every French goal came tears of joy and despair. The place erupted as the final whistle went and suddenly they went from young adults to vulnerable teenagers; many rang their parents and friends back in France perhaps a sign of their tender years.
In 2018, what I saw was the game I fell in love with all those years ago. It reminded me of the power of football. In a world where the media wants to divide us and highlight our differences, here was a uniting force which shone through regardless of language, creed or colour. I loved the way people stood and sang their national anthems with pride, shook hands at the end of the game and consoled each other. It really was the beautiful game once more.