DOHA: Strange things are happening at this World Cup. While one country is taking its first steps — giant baby ones — into that exclusive club of footballing heavyweights, another is shaping up to become only the second country after Brazil in 1962 to win two back-to-back world titles, its manager to become a straight two-time winner, the first since an Italian in 1934. Vittorio Pozzo was his name and his ghost was being called up all night on football ouija boards as Didier Deschamps felt a sudden cold shiver as England ran his normally-composed France quite ragged.
It must be incredibly hard for Gareth Southgate. England play their finest game at a World Cup since perhaps that semifinal against West Germany in 1990, but all it helps to do is recall the penalty misses that had marked their exit then. As Harry Kane ballooned his penalty, Beckham Euro-2004 style, into Row Z of the Al Bayt stadium here on Saturday, everyone was commenting on how England were losing on penalties even without going to the shootouts.
“We needed a Gary Lineker but got a Chris Waddle…,” a TV commentator would say, in a most uncharitable hark back to Lineker’s assuredness from the spot to the miss by the left-footed Waddle in the same affair 32 years ago.
But cruel as it was, it also encapsulated the historical English anxiety at failing when it matters most and their long-standing suspicion of brilliant talent. At the start of his career, while Lineker was seen mostly as a rabbit killer, scoring chiefly against smaller sides, Waddle was a terrific inventive playmaker and attacking midfielder, capable of some dazzling passes from the deep playing for Newcastle and Spurs in a very competitive English league of the 1980s.
Had Deschamps heard the commentator on Saturday, he would shot the world a quizzical look, because the French manager – the 1998 World Cup winning captain – had teamed up with Waddle as a youngster in a hugely talented Olympique Marseille side that also boasted of Jean-Pierre Papin, Abedi Pele, Marcel Desailly and a certain Enzo Francescoli — whom town-boy Zinedine Zidane idolized enough to later name his first-born after the Uruguayan maestro — and even reached the final of the 1991 Champions League.
But not for the nationalistic and insular English any history other than theirs. Thus, the TV commentator, his speeches riddled with wartime jargon, badly starved of footballing metaphor or method, would settle for the effective Lineker rather than the extravagant skills of a Waddle just to log in a win.
But everyone was watching Kane’s attempt balloon over would have their opinion on it. The African staff at the media centre watching on the giant TV would begin to say, “Outside, outside,” as Kane would wait, stop, readjust the position of the ball – “He scared, man” – and slam it in past his club mate, Hugo Lloris. This mind-reading would be for the first penalty that England would receive. For the second, when their prophecy would actually come true, the staff would have left, their shift having ended and they well and truly logged out.
“Gutted,” would be the official word of the England players under their blue ticks on Twitter, while others would have different wide-ranging reactions. Alan Shearer would post just one word to sum up his feelings, it would be football’s favourite four-letter word, but it won’t be ‘Pele.’
Yet, all would agree that this is probably the finest England generation that Southgate has unearthedor has been gifted. Jude Bellingham would have to relive a bit of Tony Adams at Euro 2000, when Aurelien Tchouameni did a minor Luis Figo, shooting into goal from between his legs, but English history-seekers would not know that, or choose to forget. Yet, it would be young Bellingham, and Saka, Foden and Rice who would run the defending champions close, and hard. Kylian Mbappe would be under shackles for most part, and grin in relief when Kane would miss.
What would emerge is the technical courage shown by Southgate’s young squad. Deschamps, his opposite number, would mostly be asked about Morocco, France’s semifinal opponents. This is what he would say, “I’d like to talk about England. We came up against an excellent team tonight. They were very technical, and played with so much intensity. I regret that we gave them chances, such as the penalties we conceded. They missed the second one, luckily for us. Our quality was probably not enough to win tonight, but luck was on our side.”
Southgate would agree. “Tonight, the result is the result because of a hundred minutes of football, and lots of things that happened at both ends of the pitch,” the ever-gracious England manager would say.
“And even if that (second penalty) goes in, we would still have got a lot to do to win the game. We have always stuck together as a team. The group of players has been brilliant. And we win and lose together, simple as that. For us, no recriminations.”