WORLD CUP COLUMN: ‘I know that was then, but it could be again’

Eric Dier sends England through to the World Cup quarter finals by converting a penalty against Colombia
Eric Dier sends England through to the World Cup quarter finals by converting a penalty against Colombia
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Taxi firm: Hello, can I help you?

Me: Yes, can I order a cab?

Taxi firm: Yes, sure. What’s the name?

Me: Football.

Taxi firm: And where are you going?

Me: Home.

Ok, I hold my hands up. Three weeks ago, I had no intention of letting this happen, no intention of sticking out my thumb and hitching a ride on board Gareth Southgate’s bandwagon confidently expecting it to merrily roll all the way to Moscow on July 15. Decades of following the England international football team had left me, left us all I guess, battle-weary with raised hopes followed by eventual failure and crushing disappointment. After all, you cannot complain if your dreams are shattered, if you had never dreamt them in the first place.

Well, that was three weeks ago and this is now. Ninety minutes from the World Cup semi final. One hundred and eighty minutes from the World Cup final.

1966. Geoff Hurst. Russian linesman. People on the pitch. Nobby dancing. To quote Baddiel and Skinner, ‘I know that was then, but it could be again.’

Misplaced patriotism? Possibly, but why not believe? Us football fans need to have our hopes and our dreams, otherwise there is little point switching on the television or walking through the turnstiles in the first place. I wrote on this very website before the tournament started that we should only ask two things of our clubs, our teams - that we have hopes for a brighter future, and that we have pride in the players wearing our shirt.

Safe to say Southgate and his men have delivered on both counts so far.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, perhaps our hopes and dreams were of reaching the quarter final before bravely bowing out - possibly to someone like the mighty Germany. Now, though, there has been a seismic shift in our hopes, our aspirations, our dreams. Instead of ‘the mighty Germany’ it is the less mighty Sweden that stand in our way of only our second World Cup semi final since the glory days of 52 years ago.

Remember the other one? It was 28 years ago today - July 4, 1990. In Turin, Italy, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed from 12 yards as England lost on penalties to the then West Germany. Cue Gazza’s tears.

Now, armed with the glorious benefit of hindsight, England’s exploits at Italia 90 helped swathes of the public either fall back in love with Pele’s beautiful game, or fall in love with it for the first time. Back then, in the gloriously hot summer of 1990, the horrors of Hillsborough were just a year old while Heysel, Bradford and countless acts of hooliganism were still firmly in the mind. Never under-estimate the impact of Gazza’s tears in helping change the landscape of English club football.

Today, of course, that landscape is very different to 28 years ago. Premier League games are regularly played out in front of packed, all seater stadiums and our top flight clubs all boast expensively assembled, cosmopolitan squads. It is a world away from 1990. And it is a world which is now preparing to roar England on in a World Cup quarter final that most people would expect us to win. No wonder they say it’s the hope which kills us ...

No doubt it will be another full circuit of the emotional rollercoaster which is familiar with all of us who have watched England regularly down the years. Back in 1990 I was 21, stuffed full of youthful innocence and enthusiasm. Decades on, that innocence has (sadly) been replaced with cynicism, yet nights like last night thankfully still possess the power, the magic, to make me suddenly believe again. Like quaffing a glorious elixir, a penalty shoot-out win over Colombia has brought the enthusiasm flooding back.

Not everyone loves football, I know that. It’s not perfect - just look at Colombia’s shocking attempts at bad sportsmanship last night - but when it gets it right it can bring communities, nations, together like nothing else can. So it was last night, and so it will be on Saturday afternoon. And hopefully beyond, not just at Russia 2018 but the next Euros and the next World Cup too.

Football has a nasty habit of kicking you in the teeth - I give you the timing of Colombia’s equaliser last night - but on the flipside it can provide memories to last a lifetime. Who knows how many more will be created between now and Sunday week ...?