MOSCOW: As a few thousand English fans lingered on in the stands long after the game, rendered motionless by sorrow, whoever operates the PA system at the Luzhniki put himself forward as a late man-of-the-match candidate, playing aloud a song that could not have been any more perfect.
As the 1996 Oasis hit ‘Don’t look back in anger’ progressed into its chorus, at least some of the English fans would have listened to the lyrics and smiled inside at how it almost seemed to mock them.“So Sally can wait. She knows it’s too late, as we’re walking on by.”
Wait. How long have they been waiting for? When the 2020 European Championships come, it will have been 54 years. A lot of those who started waiting in 1966 have stopped, their vigils taken over by sons and grandsons. Others still waste away, like that solitary old man in the Moscow metro train, wearing a faded red shirt with ‘Hurst’ on its back.
Rarely have waits been this long, for the longer it goes, the more hope dies. And finally, when it’s dead and decomposed, the torture ends and the wait is over. But for fans of the Three Lions, fate has been more cruel than usual. Every now and then, just as hope is dying and belief is fading, there comes a team that makes them hope and believe.
No, this team will not end the wait. It will do just about enough to delude them into thinking that their wait is not eternal, that it can be ended. It happened in 1990 when Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne came within a penalty shootout of getting to the World Cup final. Now it has happened again in 2018. Twenty-two minutes was all that stood between Gareth Southgate’s men and a final against France, when they lost control of their game against Croatia, never to regain it.
Of course, the rest of us, we all knew it was false hope. This team simply wasn’t good enough to be world champions. That they got this far was mostly down to the dice falling in their favour. Strip off all the emotion and hype and what is left is the fact that England won three games outright in Russia — against Tunisia, Panama and Sweden. Has there been a more lightweight run to the semifinals of a World Cup?
Even against Croatia, they could so easily have lost that match in regulation time. After their early goal, England looked like adding to that only on a couple of occasions. Over 120 minutes, they had two shots on target. Hardly the stuff that inspires championship dreams. Yet, the whole of England did not care. They dreamt. And now, that dream is dead.
But perhaps none of that matters. Perhaps what matters more than the grief is the pure joy that England’s World Cup dream, in its short life, spread. Perhaps what matters is that an entire country irritated the rest of the world by singing ‘football’s coming home’ non-stop for a month and that God might have been goaded into saving the queen for a bit more than He intended by the enthralling renditions of that anthem in the stadiums of Russia.
That the soft-spoken, well-mannered Southgate was embraced by a country whose football only ever has time for alpha males. That nobody seemed to care anymore about the fact Raheem Sterling has a gun tattooed on his leg. That their foreign secretary resigned two days ago, but the people were too busy watching their football team to notice.
As the loudspeakers at the Luzhniki blared on in the biting cold of the Moscow night, the white shirts waiting in the stands found enough life to sing along with Noel Gallagher’s perfect voice, as loudly as they had sung their songs during the match. For once their team had given them reason to not be stuck at the initial lines of the chorus and instead move on to the very end of the song.
“Don’t look back in anger. At least, not today.”