A Lifetime of Watching England Lose

David Runciman

Like many people, I imagine, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing each time England have been knocked out of the World Cup. In 2010 I was in Australia and had to get up in the middle of the night to watch England get thumped by Germany, which was a sterile and deadening experience. In 2006 I also happened to be in Australia, though that was my first time and I had only been in the country 24 hours, so seeing England lose on penalties to Portugal was more spacey and surreal. In 2002 I was in a meeting to grade student exams, which was interrupted briefly to tell us what we already knew, that England had lost to Brazil. In 1998 I saw England lose on penalties to Argentina in the front room of a house in Cambridge. In 1990 I saw England lose on penalties to Germany in the front room of a different house in Cambridge.

In 1986 I was at Glastonbury, where there were only a couple of small screens and far too many people to get a view of England’s match with Argentina; at one point a moan went through the crowd, which I discovered afterwards wasn’t for either of Maradona’s goals, but a cry of despair when Lineker narrowly failed to reach a cross from John Barnes at the death. In 1982 I was at boarding school and a teacher told us that England had failed to get the required result against Spain, which caused me inadvertently to swear in front of his wife. That’s it. In 1970 I was only three. In 1966 I hadn’t been born. It adds up to a conventional, privileged life, during which England are never going to win the World Cup.

The one I minded most, by far, was 1998. Michael Owen’s wonder-goal, which took England into a 2-1 lead against Argentina, was the only time I let myself believe that the pattern was going to be broken. It lasted about half an hour, until David Beckham got sent off. In the next round Argentina were beaten by Holland, who were in turn beaten by Brazil, who lost in the final to France. So that brief glimpse of what it might be like to have a world-beating team was a long way from the real deal. In 1990 the excitement lasted longer, and had England got past the Germans there is a good chance they would have beaten Argentina in the final, but it never felt as if the trophy was quite within reach. England were always playing catch-up with fate.

This time is different. Going out in the group stages after just two matches, without once having held the lead in either of them, is as far from winning the World Cup as you can get. There were some tantalising moments – Rooney’s header against the bar from less than a yard out against Uruguay looked both unmissable and unreachable at the same time – and England put together some nice passages of play, but the positive vibes were so short-lived that they barely register even a couple of days later. Normally England’s World Cup failures make their fans feel the passage of time: every four years is infrequent enough for a life to pass by before you know it. This tournament reinforces how quickly time passes for the players as well. One hundred and eighty minutes of football and it’s done until 2018. Some of them will get another chance, if injury spares them – Sterling, Lallana, Barkley will be back for more. Most players get more than one shot at it. But not many get more than two. Sturridge may have been at his peak for this tournament. Rooney won’t get another chance.

2022 is still scheduled to happen in Qatar, which will hardly suit England. Even Russia is likely to be an inhospitable environment next time round. There’s a possibility England might host the World Cup again during my lifetime, so perhaps there is still a faint possibility I might see them win it. But for the players, this was it. In a world where time is speeding up in so many different ways, four-year cycles represent a brutal reality check. Maybe only electoral politics is comparable: one defeat and it can be a five-year wait till you get a shot at redemption. But the lifespan of politicians is long and they know that if they can hang on, the pendulum will eventually swing their way again. Football is not like that. They think it’s all over. They’re right.


  • 22 June 2014 at 8:46am
    streetsj says:
    I'm not a football fan but it did occur to me that the World Cup should be played more often. Partly for the reason that it gives footballers such a small chance of being at their peak when it's on; and partly because it's so uplifting to hear people respond to the Iranians as though they are normal and not the devils on earth.

  • 22 June 2014 at 9:21am
    Keith Claxton says:
    Eighteen years ago, in 1996, on this date, 22nd June, I was getting married. That day at that precise moment England lost to Spain. I found out just after the ceremony. The Spaniards putting up the balloons at the reception afterwards were in a fine mood and especially generous with the Sherry. I'm half Spanish, my wife English. We're still together, so make of that what you will.

  • 22 June 2014 at 10:39am
    Harry Stopes says:
    Keith, England won that match. David Seaman - he of the copper's moustache - saved a couple of penalties in the shootout.

  • 22 June 2014 at 1:16pm
    Keith Claxton says:
    Ah, the cruelty of memory! Thank-you, Harry. Ps. Happy Anniversary, Mrs C ... I hope I didn't get that detail wrong...

    • 22 June 2014 at 4:08pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Keith Claxton
      Maybe you got married a week later and your in-laws are German...

  • 23 June 2014 at 8:56am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    There is a different perspective when you saw the last(and first) time that England won the World Cup. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was at Wembley on that historic day. Am I the only LRB reader who can make that claim?
    I was asked by the company I worked for to accompany a German businessman to the game. I can't say that I remember that much about the game itself - the eternal nattering over the goal that wasn't (in every German TV account) has overshadowed my own memories, but I do know that it was a very exciting game for the spectators, with some wonderful moments (Charlton, Peters, the toothless Nobby Stiles nagging at young Beckenbauer's heels) and a huge collective sense of triumph when the cup was handed to Bobby Moore.
    My guest was staying in the Royal Garden Hotel, which was where the two teams were having dinner after the game, and I was able to pick up a dozen autographs on my programme. It was a good night to be in London, with cheering crowds celebrating all over the West End.
    So I think that gives me the right to add my analysis on why England never win anything in Football. Watching parts of those two games last week it seemed that the basic problem with the English team was that there was no constructive mid-field players, opening lines of attack for the forwards. Then the only player whose money is earned by scoring goals seemed to be playing somewhere in midfield, where he was forced to go to get some support. Without a good mid-field trio no chance of goals. In 1966 England had brilliant mid field players. In 2o14, the winners will be the team with the strongest players creating chances. And that won't be Germany. (Check back in three weeks).

Read more