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I should be writing this article in my best red-and-white chequered shirt, stopping after every sentence to shout: ‘CROATIA!’ … much to the chagrin of my colleagues.
Given my propensity for terrible predictions and any team I cheer for falling flat on their face, I am firmly behind Croatia for tonight’s World Cup semi-final.
Remember, I’m the Wally who backed Germany to retain the trophy on this very page before the tournament kicked off.
Therefore, the truth of my allegiance lies strongly with the Three Lions on the other side of the field, but if there’s one team I do not want to jinx, it is England as they continue their remarkable run in the FIFA World Cup Finals in Russia.
My first memory of international football is Euro 1996, when football was supposed to be coming home and England was filled with anticipation.
I was four-years-old so I don’t remember the public buzz, just little snippets such as Gazza’s magical goal against Scotland and the dentist chair celebration, the 4-1 demolition of Holland and, of course, the semi-final agony against Germany.
I remember my mum allowing me to stay up late for ‘one night only’ to watch the match, which ended in heartbreak as Gareth Southgate missed the crucial penalty which saw Germany through to the final, which they subsequently won.
So, 22 years later, one abject failure after the other, it has come full circle and now coach Southgate has led his team to their first World Cup semi-final since 1990. Many questioned him getting the job, with some saying he was too nice or didn’t have the historic credentials.
Rubbish to that, I say. What he has done is instil belief in the team, nurturing a young group of players who he has worked with in the FA’s youth set-up for a number of years.
He got rid of the old guard like Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney, who often played on name rather than form, the exact problems which plagued our so-called ‘Golden Generation.’
We have an exciting team that was meant to use this tournament for experience before launching a full tilt at Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup. If we’re capable of this now, what can we achieve then?
Of course, our excitement should be tempered by the fact that there’s no denying our run to the stage of the tournament has been easy. Wins against Tunisia and Panama were expected, whilst we scraped past Colombia in the last 16.
Last Saturday’s quarter-final was indeed a more comfortable victory and by far the best performance yet, but Sweden are hardly giants of the world game.
The loss to Belgium in the group stages is hard to judge as both teams played their ‘B-team,’ but if we lose to Croatia, or indeed France or Belgium in the final (although the first semi-final was last night, at the time of going to print the game had still to be played), then one could argue we’d have been knocked out at the first sign of playing a top international outfit.
The same issue which has plagued us for two decades.
Away from England for a minute, no matter what happens either tonight or on Sunday, I want to put on record how much I’ve enjoyed this World Cup. It’s been by far the best international tournament that I can remember, and that’s without taking England’s run into account.
There’s been drama, wonderful goals and saves, controversy aplenty, last-minute winners and huge shocks. There was only one goalless draw too, an indication of the attacking football on display.
On that vein, I must give praise to Russia for its hosting of the tournament. Not only has their team impressed on the field, far exceeding the hopes of the nation, but the general vibe has been superb.
All of the diplomatic tension before the tournament seems to have dispersed, and none of the hooliganism, racism or homophobia that was feared has come to pass. Whether that’s due to fear of strict punishment lest they embarrass the nation, or whether their team’s heroics has distracted them is unclear, but kudos to Putin & Co for what they have achieved, despite all the negative press and about the way they were awarded the tournament.
Now we just need football to truly come home.
As for the World Cup trophy itself, that did come home … to the GulfWeekly office this week as I became hopefully the first of many Englishmen to lift the famous gold trophy this week.
At least, a replica version of it.
My good friend at Al Haddad Motors, Imran Ali, provided me with the glorious golden prize, available for BD35 from Sport Secrets in Manama, which is the same size and weight as the original, which hopefully the Three Lions will be bringing home on Sunday.
The original trophy, first used in 1974, is made of 18 carat gold with a malachite base, stands 36.8 centimetres high and weighs 6.1 kilograms and depicts two human figures holding up the Earth.
The names of the winners are inscribed on the base.