Open letter to the English Football team
"And David Beckham, scores the goal that takes England all the way to the World Cup finals. Give that man a Knighthood"
Up until that moment in 2001, international football meant an agonising weekend without my beloved Manchester United. I had been a United fan ever since that monumental night at the Nou Camp. However, watching that game against Greece at Old Trafford, something changed.
The entire summer of 2002, Metatarsal became the buzzword despite no anatomy teacher ever mentioning that word in class. The furore around Beckham's foot consumed the world. Aldo Duscher dolls were the Voodoo, Tony Blair held emergency cabinet meetings, eminent surgeons started giving out TV interviews, the big name sponsors sweated, worried that their star attraction might not even make it to World Cup & a nation prayed. "Please let him be fit." We pleaded, bargained, made promises to every deity out there. And then, he just was.
You might not know, but back then, football was still nascent in India. We had to get your hit from Andy Penders on Football Crazy and the brilliant John Dykes & Jamie Reeves covering the Premier League games.
It was still the days of dial-up internet, which meant there was no streaming and the time difference meant, you had to come up with ingenious reasons to bunk school if you wanted to catch the games. England won us over when Beckham exorcised his demons against Argentina that June. One kick of his anointed right foot to slide the ball past Cavallero and as he ran to the corner post tugging the badge on his shirt, we understood what it meant to him to pull that shirt on, we could see it clearly - playing for or rooting for a national team was something special.
I am sure you all remember this moment, frame by agonizing frame. Things are level between England and Brazil in the quarterfinal and Ronaldinho steps up to take a what everyone naively assumed was a routine free kick. He dips the ball behind David Seaman and that was when we truly understood what heartbreak feels like.
No failed relationship, no friend moving away, no big work thing, no loss of money- nothing has made me feel that kind of heartbreak. Nothing, that is, until that semi-final against Croatia.
The intervening 16 years are a blur... Every major tournament, there was a pattern. The golden generation, a midfield that boasted Gerard, Lampard, Beckham and Scholes, Premier League clubs at their peak, media frenzy, the WAGs, the glitz, the Bridge/Terry saga - scrape through the group stages and choke and exit at the knock out stages. This will be followed by the English media led favourite ritual of finding the scapegoat, burn the effigy, boo them at away club games.
Jamie Redknapp said this yesterday :
I experienced it with the national team. Manchester United were the best side in the country but it gave their players an 'us against the world' mentality. It meant that they would sit together when we met up with England and nothing was done to stop it.
This time, it felt different. This time, you set club rivalries aside and we could see you shared real camaraderie. This time, there was no superfluous media hype. This time, we had a world class striker in Harry Kane. This time, Southgate trusted you all and you delivered for him. And when we won that penalty shootout against Columbia, this time felt destined.
This time, we dared to hope
When Kieran Trippier, who looked like he had borrowed David Beckham's right foot before he walked out on the field scored off that magnificent free kick, we were all sending you telepathic messages "Please do not sit and soak up the pressure for the next 85 minutes". We prayed, pleaded, bartered, promised again. It looked like we had exhausted our 'pray for England' chips though.
In sport, despite what everyone says, there is no second place. If I were to ask 'Who were the 3rd place finishers in the 2010 WC?', we would all have to really think for a moment. Every armchair critic out there who is screaming at you, saying you were never any good, you never played a decent team up until Croatia, calling out Henderson's panicky passes, Sterling's decision making, Southgate's lack of Plan B and most importantly, calling Kane pedestrian was the same guy singing 'It's coming home' and banking on you to go all the way, just a couple of days ago.
I want to tell them, supporting a team doesn't mean you love at them at their finest and do a 180 when they fail. It also does not mean mollycoddling them by saying 'you guys were fabulous'. It means, standing by them without irrationally defending them. It means castigating them, without breaking their spirit. It means saying, "I am proud of you lads" without adding a but.
You are our lads, my lads. The first time in a long time, I have felt that way. The mornings after games like this is the hardest. That is when the tears have dried up and we feel every micro-ounce of pain that you feel. We would give anything to protect them from that pain, from that disappointment, even if it is the hardest thing we've had to do. After all, we have our entire lives to break down over this moment, but the morning after - belongs to you.
This time you gave us hope. This time you brought back the elation of supporting a worthy national team. This time, in the words of Harry Kane - "It hurts, it just really, hurts".
We retrospect, "Why do we put ourselves through this?" and there is just one answer - Because, you put yourself through so much more and in the end, it is all worth it. After all, "Football, bloody hell"
An England Fan, through and through.