After Portugal knocked England out of Euro 2004 on penalties, I changed my MSN name to, “Thanks, England: I was beginning to forget how that felt.”

(Five minutes just passed. Honestly, I can’t explain how I’m feeling.)

In a way, today’s loss is exponentially worse than any of the others that came before. Because this year, unlike in previous years, I actually believed. I didn’t believe in 1990, when England made the semis of the World Cup; I didn’t believe in 1996, when England made the semis of the European championship and then missed two absolute sitters in extra time against Germany. (Another five minutes just passed; I’m a wreck, by the way.) So even when the tournament didn’t start the way I’d have liked–two unnecessarily tense wins, followed by a comical, last-minute collapse against Sweden–I reasoned England were simply finding their form, and that the confused, uninspired lot would gel when the stakes were higher. The win against Ecuador was far more one-sided than the final scoreline would indicate; when Portugal systematically shot themselves in the foot against Holland, it looked as though England might waltz into the semi-finals without breaking a sweat. But once again, England couldn’t score. Wayne Rooney–more on him in a second–is lots of things, but a lone striker he’s not; he needs a strike partner in order to maximize his talents, but without a clinical yin to his creative yan he’s half the player he normally is.

(In case you can’t tell, I’ve been reading The Guardian a lot lately.)

Then “It” happened, as “It” invariably does when England are concerned: Rooney, fighting for possession, got tangled up in his markers (plural) and happened to land on Ricardo Carvalho’s balls. No big deal: it’s football. But then naturally, the Portuguese players–some of the most cynical bastards in world football among them–swarmed him. One of them, Cristiano Ronaldo (a teammate of Rooney’s at Manchester United, by the way) happened to square up to him, and Rooney shoved him out of the way. Again, no big deal. When the referee called Rooney over I assumed it was to give him a talking-to, but I never expected him to produce a red card.

But he did. When “It” happened, it felt…alright, this isn’t the word I’m looking for, but “preordained” (for lack of the proper expression/feeling dead on the inside and not caring if my vocab isn’t up to scratch). It was like deja vu all over again…which to an extent, it was: the parallels between Rooney’s sending off and David Beckham’s ridiculous red card against Argentina in France ’98 (which happened eight years and one day ago, by the way) were eerie. Since no one can conclusively say why Rooney was red carded–including, I’m sure, the referee–I’ll argue it was for the “shove” on Ronaldo. If that’s the case, then Horacio Elizondo should never be allowed to referee ever again.

But whatever: Rooney was off. To their credit, England fought valliantly; they withstood the Portuguese “attack” (such as it was), created a few scoring chances of their own and almost won it when John Terry poked a rebound juuust over the net. But when the match went into extra time, it was less about the players on the pitch and more about the men sitting on the bench. The game had turned into a battle of wits between Scolari and Sven; I know I don’t speak for all England supporters, but our manager might as well have been wearing a grim reaper’s outfit.

Oh, and penalties were just around the corner. The script was playing out exactly the way it always does; in retrospect, I’m not even sure why I bothered watching. England did well to make it to penalties; when they got there, they really had no chance.

First up: Simao, who scored effortlessly. Next up: Lampard, wretched all tournament, whose shot was gathered easily by Ricardo. (I’ve resisted the urge to write an entire blog entry about how much I hate the Portuguese ‘keeper, by the way, and not just because he’s good: he’s also the biggest prima donna in world football, and I’m including Cristiano Ronaldo.) England were up against it already. But then, a ray of hope: a miss from Viano, then a goal from the treacherous Owen Hargreaves. And then Petit missed, as well! Suddenly, England were in the driver’s seat. If Steven Gerrard could score…

…he couldn’t. Ricardo saved again, and we were back on level terms. Then it all fell apart: Postiga scored for Portugal, Carragher missed for England (after being forced to retake a kick which he put away), Ronaldo scored for Portugal. Game over. Like I said, it was practically preordinated.

(I’m sorry if you didn’t want a blow-by-blow account of the penalty shootout, by the way. Wait…no I’m not.)

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I shouldn’t have felt numb: I should be used to this by now. I have vested interest in three of the most comically star-crossed teams in sport: the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Minnesota Vikings and the English national team. I’ve been dealing with this on a nearly annual basis for almost twenty-six years; it shouldn’t feel new every time it happens. But it does–and like I said, this one feels different, because this time I actually let myself believe in a team of mine. And with good reason: England were (are) a good side. But they should have been better. They’ve got the players; in Rooney and Gerrard (his penalty-taking aside) they’ve got two of the most brilliantly gifted footballers in the world. Their defence is world-class; their goalkeeper is at least as competent as his predecessors. So what went wrong? Right now I’m too gutted to think straight, let alone form coherent thoughts about the state of the English football team…so forgive me if I’m a little bit irrational. Ultimately, the blame has to lie with Sven: he took twenty-one of the world’s best players (I’m not counting Theo Walcott or Jermaine Jenas among them) and made them into a confused, uncoordinated, uninspired lot. His decision to bring four strikers–an injured Rooney, an unfit Michael Owen and a player (Walcott) who’d never made a first-team appearance–while leaving Jermain Defoe, Andrew Johnson and Darren Bent at home was idiotic at the time, and grew increasingly stupid as the tournament progressed. (Had England progressed, they’d have gone into a semi-final against either France or Brazil with Peter Crouch and Theo Walcott as their only available forwards.) His inability to successfully incorporate Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard into the same midfield was puzzling; his staunch refusal to use a holding midfielder was frustrating, and probably wouldn’t have happened had his hand not been forced.

Then, he decided to use Rooney–still recovering from a broken metatarsal and struggling for fitness–as a lone striker, thus effectively neutralizing England’s biggest threat. Which, I would argue, set in motion the chain of events which resulted in Rooney’s sending off and England’s ultimate demise. Irrational? Maybe. But I’ve just watched him waste two of the game’s most explosive talents (Gerrard and Rooney) at the peak of their abilities. A good manager–a Scolari, for instance–should be able to get his players to recreate their club form for their country. Sven could not, and deserves to be gone.

Which he is–and if there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that Sven Goran Errikson is done as England manager.

So: that’s it for another two years, when England should be a stronger side than they were this year. Steve McClaren will be going into the European championship with a group which might look like this:

Neville – Ferdinand – Terry – Cole
Gerrard – Lampard – Downing
Defoe – Rooney
Without Sven, the future could be brighter. Then again, McClaren was Sven’s assistant. So who knows?
Right now, all I know is that I feel dead on the inside. I’m actually watching France/Brazil, but having trouble focussing; I’ve spent an hour-and-a-half writing this blog entry, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t adequately convey how absolutely gutted I am. I’m assuming sports is capable of taking you to a higher place. Right now, I’m not sure it’s ever made me feel this low.

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