The Euro final lived up to the morbid expectations of half the participants.
Italy conquered its shootout demons, aided by a keeper, only 22 years old, who most closely resembles massive dinosaurs that roamed the earth eons ago.
England lost the shootout, after a 1-1 draw in 120 minutes of play, giving the nation another year, another generation, to talk about the lads from West Ham who beat the West Germans in 1966.
Italy, known for its dogged tactics, that include Giorgio Chiellini smiling and chatting up opponents, was consistent with its repuation, as Chiellini tried to yank an English arm out of its socket.
Unknown to much of the soccer world before this month, Gianluigi Donnarumma revised memories of hallowed keepers Dino Zoff, Walter Zenga and the retired anthem-bellowing keeper Gigi Buffon. Now there’s another one.
While England broods over the Euro tournament, like patrons of some national pub, fans will surely question the tactics of manager Gareth Southgate, who missed a penalty himself, as England lost the 1996 Euro final.
Having had 25 years to think about it, Southgate inserted two subs near the end of 120 minutes – so they would help win the shootout, if you follow that reasoning.
What really bothers me is that one of them, Marcus Rashford, has helped raise millions of dollars to fight hunger. He is 23 years old and plays for Manchester United, and could easily be focusing on accumulating sports cars, but instead he raises money for the poor. I’m sure this admirable young man wanted to be used in the match, but the manager was saving him and Bukayo Saka of Arsenal, who turns 20 on Sept. 5, for penalty kicks.
Both are Black; did I mention that? And while Southgate was consoling them on the field, the sneaks and cowards of the “social” media were making racial comments about the two late subs. So now that’s part of the legend, part of the complex.
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In my earlier post, I wrote about old failures that haunt ancient soccer dynasties.
Italy and England, two nations with a toxic mix of entitlement and disillusionment, will meet Sunday in the finals of the Euros, the second best soccer tournament in the world.*
Fans of both countries can recite the failures, going back decades, with more facility than they can recall all the triumphs.
Italy has won four World Cups and the first Euro tournament, but the nation has a long case of ansia from every missed penalty kick in between – sturdy Captain Franco Baresi and creative Roberto Baggio, both suffering on bad legs, bravely taking PKs in the 1994 final -- and missing. It never goes away.
But England. Oy. England is riding a streak of 54 years without winning either of these tournaments.
Yet England dared to adopt as its theme song for the 2018 World Cup a ditty called “Football’s Coming Home,” and then England lost in the semifinals to Croatia, and France won the World Cup. France!
These years of English failure were recited, over and over again on Sunday by the ESPN broadcasting crew, Ian Darke (born in Portsmouth, UK) and Stewart Robson (born in Billericay, UK). I don't detect blatant rooting, like homer baseball broadcasters, urging “us” to score a few runs.
No, they knew their stuff about all the heinous moments in the past 54 years for the English side, and I don’t blame them for reciting the disasters for the folks watching ESPN. They were telling true stories.
Because American and English people share a common language, more or less, we Yanks have accepted English accents (whether or not Prof. Henry Higgins would approve of them) as the true soul of soccer.
To be fair, England is given credit as the modern home of the ancient sport of kicking stuff around – British sailors and workers bringing the game to the ports of South America, in the second half of the 19th Century, etc. etc.
Every year, every tournament, since 1966 looms even darker because of the wonderful event – England’s overtime victory over West Germany in the finals – at Wembley, the national stadium.
That match is probably the best-known in history because it is represented in the best sports documentary I have ever seen – “Goal!” written by Brian Glanville.
If an event like this can happen, English soccer must be the truth north of the sport, or so the theory goes.
England turns out to be the victim in two of the most famous plays in soccer history, at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, when stumpy Diego Armando Maradona of Argentina elevated himself to the height of Peter Shilton, the English keeper, and obviously punched the ball into the net, stunning the incompetent ref into inaction. Nowadays, such villainy is detected by the official camera -- plus, goalkeepers tend to punch out the lights of an opponent who flies into their air space.
In that very same match in 1986, Maradona ran rings around all 11 defenders, or so it seemed, for the most circuitous and artistic goal in World Cup history.
Want more suffering? In 1998, in France, David Beckham, the matinee idol of England, was jostled by Argentina defender Diego Simeone, and flailed a leg at Simeone, who writhed, in apparent mortal pain, and the ref displayed a red card to Beckham, and Argentina advanced and England went home.
Every generation, England has its potential saviours -- Gary Lineker in 1990, and scamps who never quite made it happen like Wayne Rooney and Paul Gascoigne, known as Gazza.
Nowadays, English soccer has been upgraded from competition with wealthy European national leagues, as well as recruited talent from Latin America and Africa and nowadays even that longtime soccer wasteland, the United States.
And get this: the sparkplug for England on Wednesday was named Raheem -- Raheem Sterling. When I started watching world soccer, England's squad used to look like a Republican Party donors' picnic. All those white lads would dump the ball downfield and hope something happened.
As Wednesday’s match went into overtime, the broadcasters quite accurately recited, “just as it was in 1966!” As England won in a penalty shootout, the broadcasters talked about “England’s tortuous history.”
I almost felt sorry for English soccer – and I am a Mets fan since 1962. At least the Amazing Metsies have won two World Series.
Many Americans in my generation learned about soccer from my good friend Paul Gardner, a son of England, who came to America and wrote and broadcast about the sport he called “soccer,” not “football,” and he spoke of “zero-zero,” not “nil-nil,” to avoid sounding pretentious to the American ear. Andres Cantor, from Argentina, is known for his ululating “Gooooool!” call, but as a long-time resident of the U.S., he informs but never patronizes.
It would be great to have more “experts” in the U.S. with a broader, non-English viewpoint -- let's say an Italian bemoaning the missed penalty kicks over the eons or a Portuguese “expert” who can describe the drubbing inflicted on the great Eusebio in 1966 or a Brazilian who can discuss with passion the best team that ever participated in a World Cup – but neglected to win it, as beautiful Brazil did in 1982, while Italy purloined the World Cup with raffish zest.
As I have written in my book "Eight World Cups," that first World Cup made me an Azzurri fan for life. I got to interview Dino Zoff, the venerable keeper, and later met Claudio Gentile, who had beaten the daylights out of Maradona in 1982. I used to watch Serie A on some wavy-line TV channel in New York City, and a decade ago I met Gigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero (currently doing studio babble for ESPN) when Juventus paid a summer visit to the Stati Uniti. Del Piero told me, in English, "Your Italian better than my English" -- clear flattery, but charming nonetheless.
Yes, yes, I know, me mum was born in Liverpool, and spoke with English inflections for all her long and admirable life. Yes, I am proud of how the U.S. has, finally, developed world-level talent. But to this day, I love to watch the Italian players belt out the lyrics to the anthem, “Song of the Italians.” Long-time keeper Buffon is now retired but the Italians have another leader, Giorgio Chiellini, (with Buffon, above), who has the wrinkles of athletic old age and roars out the anthem, and jokes with opponents -- until the ref is not looking and he whacks and trips his opponents.
Yes, these have been terrible decades for sad, deprived Italy and England.
Now they will meet in Sunday’s final at Wembley.
Somebody will lose, and that nation will say: “Naturally.”
Somebody will win, and that nation will say: “Finally.”
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*- The best tournament, of course, is the World Cup. The third best is the Copa América, which held a dream final Saturday at Rio’s famous Maracana Stadium, with Lionel Messi's Argentina beating between Neymar’s Brazil, 1-0.
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(Complexes and failures aside, I am hooked on this video depiction of loyal, eccentric England fans; on Wednesday at kickoff, my pal Duncan-from-Arsenal sent me a terse email that said in its entirety: "Meat Pie." Do watch it.)
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.