The kids are all right
If someone were to ask me how I spent my summers, the books I read, the fashions I liked (or didn’t) with each passing year, I would have little to no recollection. If you asked me where I was (and who I was) during a football tournament, I think I could tell you with a great degree of accuracy. There is something melancholic about the end of a large tournament, maybe to do with measuring life in trophies and seasons, or the way it signals that the end of summer is approaching. I look back on tournaments with the nostalgia non-football fans might feel for – I don’t know – royal weddings, general elections or solar eclipses. According to Don Draper in Mad Men, ‘in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.’ He was wrong about the Greek, but right about the feeling.
When I was at university, the sounds of Match of the Day would remind me of home when I missed it most and my first notable crushes were Alan Hansen and Harry Kewell. When I talk to my Dad the conversation moves freely between work, politics and the dubious things Mum gets up to, but football is the bookend to our conversations. He watches the big tournaments, both men’s and women’s, and they’re among the few times he sends me unsolicited texts. On England: ‘an excellent performance and Denmark should feel a tremor of fear’. I know these are conversations I will come to treasure.
As part of the government’s Events Research Programme, sixty thousand people were allowed into Wembley to watch Italy v. England last night. Ticket prices ranged from £250 to £800 with touts commanding figures in the thousands. Uncharacteristically, I entered competitions to win tickets: no luck. A few hundred ticketless fans broke into the stadium. Earlier in the day I had wanted to go to the West End if England won, but changed my mind as footage circulated on social media of men in Leicester Square sticking flares in places they should not, getting parts of their bodies out they should not and snorting cocaine to cheers from the crowd.
Instead, I stayed put at the bar of Dulwich Hamlet FC, where there are free tampons in the bathroom and pride flags adorn the walls. UEFA’s indecisiveness over rainbow flags reached its finale as the miniature Volkswagen made a return, this time decorated in a rainbow. If I could ban one song it would be ‘Three Lions’ by Baddiel & Skinner & Lightning Seeds. I’d rather listen to ‘Meat Pie, Sausage Roll’. The last few weeks you haven’t been able to move for being told: ‘It’s coming home.’ [A sentiment closer to the literal meaning of ‘nostalgia’ than Don Draper’s translation – Ed.]
And in the opening two minutes it looked as if it might be coming home, as Luke Shaw scored his first ever England goal. For what felt like an eternity but was just the first half England held the advantage, playing excellent defensive football until Leonardo Bonucci scored the equaliser for Italy around the 66th minute (another bad omen?). Bonucci runs to his fans, I feel sick. Jack Grealish comes on in extra time and threatens to shake things up but there are no more goals and the stalemate means England’s fate in the knockout stages of a major tournament will once again be decided on penalties. Berardi scores. Kane for England. Pickford saves Belotti. Maguire scores. Bonucci for Italy. Rashford hits the post. Bernardeschi scores. Sancho is saved. Pickford saves Jorginho. Donnarumma saves Saka. Italy are crowned Euro 2020 winners, and I am already feeling nostalgic.
The hooliganism and racism aimed at the players last night has cast a darker cloud than the mere loss of a tournament. But many England fans still have immense pride in the squad for their performance both on and off the pitch. In 1995 Alan Hansen said of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United: ‘You can’t win anything with kids.’ United proved him wrong that season but the unpredictability of football means you can say anything and it will eventually be proved right. We didn’t win but in Southgate and England have been offered a glimpse of what it really means to be a success.