21st June 2002. It was early morning, before work, yet I was in a Codicote pub jumping up and down in sheer delight. England were playing Brazil, and just for a short while I thought that we were destined to win the World Cup.
Despite the usual hype back home surrounding any World Cup involving England, I didn’t have great expectations on us winning in Japan. Few teams win outside their continent, and Japan was not somewhere I thought we’d be particularly successful. I was more looking to Germany 2006 and beyond, and despite Beckham’s redemption day against the Argies in the group stages, there hadn’t been much to be hopeful about Sven’s army. Sure, we’d just breezed past Denmark 3-0, but now we were playing the mighty Brazil – runners up in ’98 and on a mission to put right their failure. I say “mighty” – they may not have been the all-conquering team of tournaments in years gone by, but for me, Brazil meant the World Cup. We always seemed to fail when we met one of the big teams in the knockout stages, so it was with much dread that I watched the quarter final kick off.
In the pub, I was surrounded by people who’d have to be off to work soon after, each thinking how extra time might go down with their boss. The lucky ones had taken the day off – whatever the result, spreadsheets, meetings and customers all would get second billing in the tide of emotions that were sure to follow. I was nervous about a couple of colleagues who’d joined me, as they’d no doubt be seeing me in a new light after this match, what with the inevitable shouting, possible swearing and even the prospect of tears. A new environment…and in the 23rd minute it looked to be a lucky one…
When it happened, it was like being given a key to a magical wonderland. Sure, you had to get to the door and unlock it, but everything you ever wanted was now possible. Michael Owen – Liverpool’s hero predator and a man who could do no wrong in my eyes – had just hunted down the slightest mistake in the Brazilian defence and slotted in to take the lead for England. We were 1-0 up against Brazil. WE WERE 1-0 UP AGAINST BRAZIL!!!!! I remember shouting, screaming, drink going everywhere. I hugged Matt, despite a split second moment of awkwardness. At that moment, we weren’t colleagues or friends – just joyful England supporters. Suddenly, my mind went into overdrive. We would beat Brazil. We’d go into the semis and nothing would stop us! Sven is a God! We’d put 1990 behind us and go all the way to the final where of course Owen would emulate Hurst, get a hat-trick and win the cup for England! I honestly had a moment of clarity when the unthinkable was unfolding before my very eyes. I was sure that if we just got to half time we’ll do it. Just get to half time. Just get… oh you son of a £$%^”!!!!
If Rivaldo’s equaliser knocked me sideways, what happened in the second half couldn’t have drained me more of life if I’d just fallen into a vampire’s convention at midnight with the buffet having just run out. When Ronaldinho floated a free kick towards Seaman’s goal, I watched the ball’s arc, safe in the knowledge that it was no threat. Big Dave would get it, being only a yard or two off his line. He may be getting on a bit, but he’ll save it. I didn’t expect a shuffle of feet that my grandad would be ashamed of as the ball peaked then dipped towards the top corner, before hitting the net half a second before England’s lumbering number one did. My dreams crashed through the floor.
I have no recollection of the rest of the match. It took another Google just now to remember Ronaldinho got sent off soon after. I do know, however – as clichéd as it sounds – a part of me died that day. Aside from being a zombie throughout the horror of the working day that started minutes after we trudged out of the pub, I wasn’t the same after. Yeah, I know, footy is in many ways pointless and irrelevant and is certainly not life and death, but the part of me that felt unbounded joy and belief that we could do it went forever that day. Even the most important of goals I’ve witnessed since have never been greeted with such belief as I felt at the moment Owen’s goal went it. Part of me will always hold back. Until the day – if it ever comes – that the final whistle blows in the final to signal the right for England to earn their second star, I’ll always fear the worst.