“It’s not the despair, I can take the despair. It’s the hope that I can’t stand.” – John Cleese in the film Clockwise.
He might have been talking about England at major football tournaments.
As a long-suffering, perpetually despairing, but ever-hopeful England fan, I know the feeling.
And after Harry Kane sent his penalty soaring into the Arabian desert, I’m wondering if there’s another affliction we should add to the list.
After all, isn’t doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results what Einstein called insanity?
England have just gone out of a major tournament after missing a penalty – something they’ve been doing for longer than most people can remember.
With almost clockwork regularity, at the quarter-final stage.
And they keep coming back and expecting a different result.
The expectation builds every couple of years when a major tournament comes around.
It usually starts when we’ve got out of the group, but it can be earlier.
Banging in a few goals against a minnow in the group stage can be enough – as it was this time when we hit Iran for six.
Or, on the odd occasion, fanned by the media, it has built before the tournament began.
With the Golden Generation, it was when the 2006 World Cup draw was made.
Some people couldn’t see how a team with Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Owen, Rooney, Ferdinand and Terry couldn’t win it.
Sven Goran Eriksson was in charge and he thought he had the best team in it.
I interviewed him in China years later and he still couldn’t understand how we lost. It was on penalties in the quarter-final.
The whole thing has morphed from a sore point to a national disgrace. Besides the uncanny inability to score from 12 yards, there’s the effect on the national psyche.
What starts with a stuttering run-up and wayward kick has often ended with a rampage of smashed cars manufactured by the country (usually Germany) that beats us.
Lock up your Peugeot and Renault tonight, folks.
It all goes back to 1990.
The shooters of shame are names that trip off the tongue like famous villains: Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle started it and current England boss Gareth Southgate was one of the culprits.
In last year’s European Championships final, there were three of them – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka who are all black – which led to them suffering racist abuse.
It’s as if the ghosts of past failures came back to haunt. No matter how much they practise, they still miss.
Spain are almost as bad and actually lost a shootout to England in Euro 96.
In Qatar, they practised 1,000 kicks and three of them missed against Morocco.
It becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That said, England got past the quarters recently – reaching the semis at the last World Cup and the final of the Euros.
And expectations reached fever pitch. But we still didn’t win.
Now this time, expectations rose as big fish were knocked out.
The team was more experienced and half-decent. And the way the tournament was unfolding, there was a sense that we would never have a better chance.
This peaked when Morocco knocked out Portugal (and old nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo).
With just the injury-hit 300-1 outsiders (when the tournament started) in the way, another final beckoned.
Last year, we did reach the final on home ground at Wembley and it seemed a golden opportunity.
And in 2018, when we met little Croatia in the semifinal, it was the same again.
But we still found ways to blow it.
I sometimes feel that as well as the Golden Ball and Golden Boot, there should be a prize for ingenuity – England always find a way to lose.
From initial reports, it does seem as if the country might have taken this one on the chin.
The fans in the Al Bayt stadium warmly supported a team that had bested the world champions for much of the game.
They didn’t seem as crestfallen as some other losing fans we’ve seen.
And so far, there’s no sign of smashed French cars while the press has paid tribute to a gallant effort.
Could it be that people are not so easily fooled into thinking a different result is possible and are, therefore, inured against disappointment?
What made this defeat especially hard to take is that the country is desperate for some good news, any little glow of positivity to lift the gloom of a winter of discontent.
A football victory doesn’t pay heating bills but it brings warmth to the heart and memories that last a lifetime.
I know because I’ve experienced it.
To a millennial, it’s so far back in antiquity that they may wonder if it’s true. But I still have both a fuzzy memory and a fossilised ticket.
I postponed a trip around the world to see England win the World Cup in 1966. I thought it might not happen again.
And now we’re not even sure if Southgate is going. Ominously, pundits are asking: how can he leave this team?
It’s maturing with exciting new stars. Bellingham and Saka will be even better. Roll on the 2024 Euros.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
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