Once again, it did not come home, but this time there was solace rather than sorrow in defeat.
24 June 2004. I still remember the date vividly. It is a date that has stayed with me throughout the years. It is the date of my first real heartbreak as a football fan.
Unbeknownst to my then eight-year-old self, this was just the start of many harrowing years that were to follow in my journey as a supporter of the England national football team.
I was just a shy and unassuming young boy, with barely any knowledge of the world around me, and with plenty to learn and unravel. Football, however, was something that I needed no introduction to. I became entwined in an obsessive relationship the moment I got to know about it some eight months earlier.
And because I knew about football, I knew about the John Terry’s, Ashley Cole’s, Steven Gerrard’s, Frank Lampard’s, Wayne Rooney’s, and Michael Owen’s of our world.
Remember them? They were part of the golden generation of English football. The generation that was tasked with winning England the FIFA World Cup once again since their solitary triumph way back in 1966. The generation that also boasted serial winners in the form of Sol Campbell, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, and a certain David Beckham, amongst many others.
What a formidable squad, full of world-class talents. Surely, it was their destiny to go on and achieve some remarkable success on the international stage, right?
The England team at EURO 2004 was another level 😍
Now, bear with me as I take you through how it all panned out. Bear with me….
It is 24 June 2004, the day of Portugal vs England in the UEFA Euro 2004 Quarterfinal. The game ends in a thrilling 2-2 draw after extra-time, and a penalty shootout beckons.
Having never witnessed one before, I do not know what a penalty shootout is or how it works, so I ask my father, who tries his level best to explain to a kid struggling with basic mathematics in primary school.
First up for England is superstar Beckham. The golden boy, the poster boy, the captain. He runs towards the ball with a certain swagger, and hits it with aplomb. His shot flies high and wide towards the stands.
The supposed saviour of English football looks down at the penalty spot with shock and disgust, while I, the eight-year-old rooting for England from thousands of miles away in the city-state of Singapore, am confused.
I watch on as England and Portugal take turns to score their next few penalties, before a young English striker by the name of Darius Vassell sees his spot-kick saved by the Portuguese goalkeeper (he never plays for England ever again, and I wonder why).
The same Portuguese goalkeeper then scores a penalty and runs to celebrate with his team-mates. Once again, I am confused, because I do not know goalkeepers possess the ability to take – let alone score – penalties.
Suddenly, the television cameras pan towards the England players, some of them are crying, some of them are lying flat on the ground, while others are staring into blank space.
It then hits me that England have lost, and England are out.
I do not know what to do, so I do the best thing a confused and upset eight-year-old can do, I cry. I cry because some players, a thousand of miles away, have lost a game of football. I feel silly. I head to bed.
The year is now 2006, and I am buzzing at the prospect of watching my first-ever World Cup. This time, I am prepared, having read up on the laws of the game, and about penalty shootouts in particular (thank you FIFA football games and random football books from the library).
Once again, England reach the quarterfinals. Once again, England play Portugal.
Once again, the winner is to be decided by kicks from the penalty spot.
Once again, England lose.
I am heartbroken. I refuse to believe that Gerrard and Lampard, specialists who score penalties for Liverpool and Chelsea respectively every other week, could miss in the penalty shootout for England on the biggest stage of them all. I mean, why miss for England?
Once again, I cry, not only because Beckham went off injured early in the second-half, or because the stars who light up the English Premier League on a weekly basis for their club sides could not come together and deliver for their country, or because England lost, but because it is convenient for a 10-year-old to throw a hissy fit and break down when he doesn’t get what he wants.
I am also burning on the inside, because a certain Cristiano Ronaldo instigated the referee to send off Rooney, his teammate at Manchester United, in the second-half.
I tell myself a couple of days later that it is okay and that the glory days will soon arrive for my beloved Three Lions.
In the blink of an eye, 2008 arrives and I am about to sit for the first major examination of my life, but before that, I am going to watch England play in Euro 2008 – but that never happens because England do not qualify for Euro 2008.
Somehow, in their final qualifying match, they contrive to lose 3-2 to Croatia in front of a sell-out crowd at the Wembley Stadium on a November night in 2007. The players are booed off the pitch and the England coach Steve McLaren is sacked the following day.
I do not watch the game, but I wake up in the morning, check the score on the BBC website, and feel a terrible, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. “They lost because I did not watch the game,” I foolishly tell myself.
And so the wait for glory goes on, and by now a daunting Italian man by the name of Fabio Capello is tasked with leading England at the 2010 World Cup in sunny South Africa.
This time, I am pained even before the tournament begins when one of my favourite Arsenal players, Theo Walcott, is omitted from the England squad.
Regardless, I watch on in horror as England are held to a 1-1 draw in their opening group game by a country that refers to football as s**cer. England eventually finish as runners-up to this country, and, as a result, need to settle for a daunting round of 16 tie against the great Germans, who almost always win football matches.
The Germans do indeed win, by 4 goals to 1, but I am left with a bitter taste in my mouth because Lampard had a goal wrongly disallowed with the scoreline at 2-1. “The ball crossed the line!” I scream, repeatedly, at my television, together with millions around the world, but to no avail.
England are robbed, but all that really matters is that England have crashed out. This time, I am too enraged to shed tears.
By the time Euro 2012 rolls around, I begin to lose hope. The bulk of the golden generation have either retired or been dropped. New faces are aplenty, but I wonder if it will be the same old England.
In the most English of ways, I watch England pull off another England in another penalty shootout, this time against Italy.
I experience a feeling of numbness rather than sadness, because that’s how it eventually feels when you have been continuously let down for years.
Before long, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil rolls around. This will be the last for Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney. England are pitted in the group of death alongside Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.
They crash out with a whimper, fail to win a game, and finish bottom, but at least I get to celebrate Rooney scoring his one and only goal at a World Cup. Small joy, but once again England do not challenge for the big prize.
Two years down the road, as I settle down to watch Euro 2016, I realise that I am fast approaching adulthood and have still not seen England reach the semi-finals of a major tournament or win a penalty shootout, let alone win a trophy.
When I tell people I am an England fan, they laugh at me and give me that look. I generally understand why.
But I only really understand why when England lose 2-1 to minnows Iceland in the round of 16. The ultimate embarrassment for English football, and my most embarrassing and deflating day as an England fan.
So much for the “golden generation”, so much for success on the international stage, so much for everything. Maybe, England are not a good football team after all. Maybe, I have been living a lie all my life.
And that, was how it all panned out.
As I write this, it is 12 July 2018. England are out of the 2018 World Cup, which, is not really a surprise, except that England were not knocked out in June, nor were they knocked out last week, they were knocked out last night.
They were knocked out in the semi-finals after a 2-1 defeat to Croatia.
Yes, that’s right, England reached the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time in 28 years.
They reached the semi-finals of a World Cup with Jordan Pickford in goal, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker at the heart of defence, Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young marauding down the flanks, Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard patrolling the midfield and beyond, and Harry Kane leading the attack with Raheem Sterling.
With the least glamorous and least experienced squad in recent memory, this England team somehow triumphed where the “golden generation”, packed with household names, flopped.
Oh, and these group of players also won England’s first penalty shootout in World Cup history (at the fourth time of asking) and their first in any major tournament since 1996.
They were led by a passionate, compassionate, and brazen manager in Gareth Southgate, a former England international who knew firsthand the ignominy of missing and losing in a penalty shootout, and failing on the biggest stage of them all.
Unfortunately, the fairytale remained incomplete and football did not come home because England did not win the World Cup.
Actually, scratch that, I would like to think that football has well and truly returned home.
For the first time in 14 years of supporting England, I finally witnessed a squad of humble and hardworking players with incredible grit and guile, who were mentally strong enough to believe they could achieve something special, which they did.
They won the heart of a broken nation, and they gave a nation its beloved football team back.
Therefore, I will treasure this semi-final, I will treasure this England team, and I will treasure this World Cup.
I mean, it could be another 14 long years before England make me feel giddy with excitement again.
Cover photo courtesy of Fauzan Saari.