It’s said if you expect nothing you can’t be disappointed. It’s my first World Cup since I moved to Spain and I’m expecting virtually nothing from England. I was over here two years ago when England embarrassingly crashed out to Iceland and I remember laughing as an uncreative, uninspiring team limped away from France.
I have to admit at this stage, that I have a love-hate relationship with the national team. Years of underachievement I can cope with. The hype surrounding the so-called ‘golden generation’ of Scholes, Lampard, Gerrard, Beckham, Ferdinand, Rooney et al left me cold. It seemed they were all included because they were the best around as opposed to making the best team. I could reel off players over the years who have been awarded way too many caps as much as I could list players who were discarded or ignored because they didn’t play for a ‘fashionable’ team.
As I grow older, I’m less inclined to watch matches in the pub, especially England games. Living in Spain, however, lends itself to enjoying local hospitality outside in the sunshine. I vow to myself that I will expose my national leanings in public until England are out. Realistically in the last 16. It’s interesting to note at this point, that media pundits have a tendency to write off England’s chances a good six months before the event. I also note that as this tournament approaches, those pundits become more and more optimistic before blaming the rest of us for getting overexcited.
It’s refreshing that Gareth Southgate seems to be creating a great team spirit and it’s clear his players in interviews are enjoying the moment. Thankfully, it’s Belgium who has this years ‘golden generation’. Pressure off then! Belgium has already got off to a flyer, beating Panama 3-0 the afternoon of England’s first game.
Tunisia 1 England 2
It’s Monday evening and it’s my local Irish bar for the Tunisia game. It’s one of a group of bars on an urbanisation and never really gets full. I’m outside and take my position to the left of the TV screen and most people are sitting. Many from different countries, mainly Spain. It’s all very civilised. England start well and for 20 minutes, look pretty impressive. It is Tunisia though, and they should, shouldn’t they? Harry Kane lashes in a rebound from a John Stones header and all is good. Those of us watching outside notice a slight glitch. There is a delay between the England goal being scored and the inside punters cheering. It seems they are watching about 20 seconds behind the rest of us. Not good if you don’t want to know the score 20 seconds hence. Then comes our first encounter with V.A.R and it’s not good. A wayward arm by Kyle Walker in the penalty area catches Ben Youssef in the face. It’s called by the referee and is confirmed by the men in the studio. The penalty is scored and it’s all level. It’s the first time England have been on the receiving end of V.A.R, which is there to catch out or confirm obvious mistakes. It has but mysteriously misses Harry Kane being wrestled to the floor on two occasions.
England huff and puff with plenty of possession but not much threat, let alone clear-cut chances. That is until injury time when Kane scores and saves the back pages of the tabloids. Whew! The first time England have scored two goals in a World Cup match since a 2-2 draw against Sweden in 2006. Post-match is mixed and despite the win, expectations are still low. Reaction in the bar was very un Benidorm, which is the way we like it.
The locals are happy, despite Portugal snatching a draw late on from the boot of Ronaldo. They’ve beaten Iran and with only Morocco to come, look certain to qualify for the knockout stages. Goals and wins are greeted by firework displays and there looks to be more to come. Our local Spanish bars are full whenever Real Madrid or Barcelona play. A successful Spain is good for both local business and atmosphere. Their animated reactions to the flow of games are always on show and very friendly.
England 6 Panama 1
It’s a pleasant Sunday afternoon and ‘The Dublin’ has opened three hours early for the game. Afternoon drinking is back on the agenda. It’s a 2 pm kickoff and a win is expected, although given it’s England, a banana skin. There aren’t as many in attendance today. There is a mix of regulars and holidaymakers though. Panama try to ‘play hard’ and intimidate England but it fails. England then surprise us all by going 5-0 up by half-time. Two of the goals propel John Stones into ‘Golden boot contender’ territory. By the end of the game, the punters have diverted to their mobile phones. England, having scored with six out of their seven shots on target have won 6-1. Kane scores a hat-trick of two penalties and a third he knew little about. Inexplicably, both Raheem Sterling and Jordan Pickford are being singled out for criticism by the media. For the first time, the phrase “football’s coming home” raises its head in, not so much ‘anger’, more ‘vexation’.
England Reserves 0 Belgium Reserves 1
By now, Spain has scraped into the knockout stages with an unconvincing draw against Morocco. They are way behind the real shock of the tournament, however, as Germany’s defeat by South Korea sends them home, bottom of their group. England have no such worries and arrange a reserve game against Belgium. Just to make it ‘interesting’ the winners have been promised games against much better opposition for the rest of the tournament. Despite this enticing carrot, neither team seems to want to win. It takes a good Adnan Januzaj finish to separate the teams. Michy Batshuayi celebrates by cleverly smashing the ball against a post and into his face. Everybody laughs. About 20 seconds later, everybody inside the bar laugh. By losing, England get to play the poorer teams that are left. I think most England fans are more than happy with that.
Colombia 1 England 1 (aet, 3-4 on penalties)
One of the benefits of watching matches in the pub is missing out on the lack of insight from the football pundits on BBC and ITV. From Hoddle to Lawrenson and Keown to Murphy there is plenty to be grateful for. The pub is full both inside and outside, eagerly anticipating whatever England has to offer. Spain exited two days earlier to a penalty shootout defeat to surprise package, Russia. A 1-1 draw after 120 minutes means that the last Spanish firework has fizzled out. The locals seem a bit shell-shocked but there are many still watching England.
The first hour is dour, with England well on top. Colombia spend their time attempting to intimidate the England players. Henderson received a butt from Barrios, launched from the chest up towards the chin. A yellow card ensues and V.A.R is ignored by the referee. The deadlock is broken after 57 minutes when Harry Kane is wrestled to the floor and a penalty is given. It doesn’t go down too well with Colombia who spend four minutes arguing the decision, while at the same time trying to dig up the penalty spot. Kane scores his penalty and even though England don’t score again, they don’t look like losing. A dangerous place to be.
I fully expected wild scenes when the goal went in but it seems there are a fair few Scots watching with us. They refuse to celebrate, I assume out of respect for any Colombians watching. Colombia, sensing time running out, decide to try and play football and are actually quite good at it. In injury time and near to the final whistle, Jordan Pickford makes a terrific save from a Mateus Uribe volley. Just one corner to defend. You know what’s coming next. Yerry Mina heads in the corner and the Scots around us decide that it’s boring to respect a side who has just conceded a goal and celebrate as if Rangers had just won the treble! It’s noted and one or two customers are irritated.
Colombia are on top for the first part of extra time, but England finish the stronger. It’s the dreaded penalty shoot-out. We all think we know what’s coming. Despite an early miss, It’s three penalties each going into the fifth and Pickford saves from Bacca. Up steps Dier to seal the win. A World Cup shootout win at the 4th attempt. By this time most of the Scots have left the bar but it doesn’t stop some, including myself celebrating in front of them. I wonder whether the ones who left early are gutted to have missed this moment.
Sweden 0 England 2
It’s our old friends Sweden in the quarter-final. Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it’s argued they may actually have become a better team. Topping their group with only a 95th minute Germany winner defeating them in their 2nd game, they are robust but lack flair. With the winners of Croatia v Russia awaiting in the semi-final, the word on the street is that “football’s coming home”. So much for keeping one’s feet on the floor.
For this game, we have an appointment in the tourist hotspot, Villamartin. We decide to watch the game in Villamartin Plaza, which is about fifteen minutes drive from our house. The Plaza is a square surrounded by two floors of bars and restaurants. It will be full and I doubt there will be anyone there not watching the football. I was right, it was heaving. Few seats are available and before the game has started the “football’s coming home” chant has begun. It’s very hot, probably late 30s, so taking fluids on board is necessary. Most people seem to have taken this idea on board already.
A seat gained in a ground floor bar and the match starts. It’s very cagey at the start but England dominate possession. After 30 minutes, we get another example of the inconsistent football streams in Spain as the largest bar on the first floor goes absolutely berserk. Now either England have taken the lead or something very strange has occurred. About half a minute later we find out as Ashley Young floats a free kick into the area and Maguire heads in 1-0! I can’t even muster a cheer and vow to go home to our local as soon as the half-time whistle sounds. We make it to half-time with no further spoilers.
On arrival at The Dublin, we are met by… Swedish women. The outside bar is relatively sparsely populated and it seems all the England fans are inside. I remember the 20-second delay here so there’s no way I’m watching inside. I decide to watch with the ‘away’ fans. An interesting aside is that the owner of the Irish bar is an Iranian Swede with a Hungarian wife. I ask him who he wants to win the game. Surprisingly, he says England. “When England play, my bar is full and I make lot’s of money” he explains and it makes sense.
Just on the hour mark, England further the bar’s profits when Lingard crosses from the right and Alli heads home. As I’m surrounded by Swedish women in their team’s kit I don’t go wild celebrating. In fact, I give a respectful cheer and clap, much in the same way as I may do celebrating a Joe Root half-century. It’s all so civilised. Although it’s a relatively comfortable win, it’s achieved with three excellent saves from Jordan Pickford. With the penalty save and this performance, he’s quickly gaining favour, even with the media. At the end of the game, I find that the back of the bar has been opened up and that’s where the England fans are. For the first time, I’m actually thinking there may be a chance England will do a ‘Denmark’ or ‘Greece’.
Croatia 2 England 1 (aet)
The ‘football’s coming home’ theme has now gone mad. People who hate football are now saying and singing it. When I see a clip of the ‘loose women’ participating, I vow never to watch another game of football ever again.
A side effect of qualifying for the semi-final has taken me by surprise. Months and months ago, we booked to go to the MadCool Festival in Madrid. Their version of Glastonbury. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be away for one of England’s games at this World Cup, especially this late in the tournament. The game is on Wednesday, the day we fly up there. The festival starts on Thursday and we travel home on Sunday morning, the day of the final. A quick ‘Google’ of sports bars in Madrid shows there are many, mainly Irish bars.
We get the train into Madrid Centre and find that getting into a bar showing the game is easier said than done. The queues are enormous and the kick off is approaching. Half an hour before the kick-off we find a small bar advertising the game. It’s virtually empty and it’s decided the atmosphere may have to be sacrificed in order to see the match. There’s no sign of a screen or TV but it’s explained by the staff that a large screen will be erected just before the start. Ten minutes before the start of the match two of the staff, armed with a sheet and stapler, proceed to staple the ‘screen’ to the ceiling. This causes much amusement to the customers, who are starting to arrive. A projector is then revealed from the ceiling. The game starts and due to the contours of the sheet, it looks like the match is being played on a hillside.
Kieran Trippier wastes no time in giving England the lead and we celebrate. We then notice that no one else is joining in. It seems the Brits opposite us are actually Scottish and the rest are neutrals, clearly siding with Croatia. We have to make a decision. I decide to go on a reccy at half-time and see if any bars are letting in. I’m greeted with the streets full of England supporters, thousands of them, singing ‘that song!’ I find an Irish bar with no queue. It’s good enough for me and a quick phone call later and I’m in the biggest bar I’ve ever been in, with about a dozen large rooms and thousands of England fans eagerly awaiting the second half.
The rest, of course, is history. 22 minutes from a first World Cup Final in 52 years, 11 minutes from penalties. It’s a big come down and the pub is quickly empty. I hear that there has been some violence in Benidorm but thankfully, everything in Madrid is good-natured. My overall feeling is of the disappointment of being ‘taken in’ by the whole ‘coming home’ vibe. England ran out of steam against a team that were taken to extra time and penalties in their last two games.
Belgium 2 England 0
I spend the next two nights at MadCool, watching the likes of Slaves, Jack White, Arctic Monkeys, Depeche Mode, Kasabian, Tame Impala amongst others. The music finishes sometime around 4 am and my appetite for the 3rd/4th place play-off is exactly as it was in 1990. Zilch! The most pointless game since the last 3rd/4th place playoff. I catch most of the game in my hotel room, (you didn’t think for one minute I’d be in a tent, did you?) before I leave for the final night of music. England are well beaten. The commentary is in Spanish and as mine is poor, despite lessons, I don’t even have the musings of the studio pundits to laugh at.
That’s it for another four years.
I watched the final at home and see a strong French team beat Croatia 4-2 with a little help from a controversial V.A.R referred decision. At 1-1, Perisic is adjudged to have handled the ball in the area. Griezmann converts the spot kick, 2-1. France then go on to take a 4-1 lead. France keeper, Lloris gives us the last laugh as he comically hands Mandzukic a goal and a lifeline. The lifeline wasn’t taken and France win their second World Cup. My consolation is that they would likely have comfortably beaten England anyway.
Russia 2018 was one of the best World Cups in living memory and possibly ever. England went way beyond expectations and arguably kept us interested until the last weekend of the tournament. They have a young team but not enough world class stars to have gone that extra step needed. Despite the journey, I never thought we would actually do it, but even I started to wonder when we took the lead in the semi-final. This contrasts with 1990 as that team could so easily have won the World Cup.
I learnt that when you want to watch British streams in Spanish bars, make sure they’re all on the same stream, or at least get the one that’s the quickest. That fans of all countries are happy to watch each other’s teams and enjoy the football feast. If you are watching in Spain, it’s good if the Spanish team does well. That V.A.R is good, it’s just those watching in that little room that are the problem. Scotland could really do with their team qualifying for the World Cup, but I won’t hold my breath. Finally, despite what some reports show, England fans can watch the game in Spain and not go on the rampage afterwards.
Sadly this time though, football didn’t come home!