In the last few weeks, a soft fog of nostalgia has settled over much of England as the country commemorates the 25th anniversary of Italia 90. It was one of the few times that the national team did better than expected. The Three Lions had been inept, or profoundly unlucky, for several years, reaching their nadir in losing every match in the 1988 European championships. One London paper shouted to Bobby Robson, the England manager, “IN THE NAME OF GOD, GO!”—a nice echo of Oliver Cromwell’s words to the Rump Parliament—and then, when the team was held to a draw by Saudi Arabia, “IN THE NAME OF ALLAH, GO!” But Robson didn’t go, and continued to lead the team through World Cup qualifying and into the tournament itself, where, to general astonishment, they made it to the semi-finals, losing to West Germany—of course—on penalties—also of course.

In the later stages of the tournament I was in London, visiting England for the first time in my life. At the time I knew nothing about soccer; had never really paid attention to it. I do not believe I even understood that the World Cup was going on. But one evening my wife and I were walking near Covent Garden and trying to understand why the streets were so empty. We had not been in London long, but we understand that this was not normal; was not anything like normal. Then we started hearing the shouts.

From time to time, from every pub in earshot, groups of people would cry out: in fear, in anticipation, in misery—and three times in ecstasy. The last two marked the moments when England’s brilliant forward Gary Lineker converted two penalties to bring England back from a deficit against Cameroon, sending them into the semi-finals. But at the time I didn’t know that. I had to get back to our hotel and turn on the TV, and then read the next morning’s newspapers, to piece together the events of the evening. Gradually it dawned on me that this World Cup thing was a pretty big deal.

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A few days later an American couple then living in London invited my wife and me to have dinner at their flat and then watch England play the Germans. I was half-disappointed—I had wanted to find out first-hand what it would be like to watch such an event in one of those raucous pubs—but it was impossible to say no. It was also the Fourth of July, which it was sensible to spend with my fellow Americans (though our pre-match dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant was not, perhaps, fully orthodox). But whether I would have enjoyed the pub experience more or not, in that little flat in Bloomsbury I came for the first time to understand something of soccer as a game, and of its role in English society.

I remember the somber dignity of the pre-match commentary—it sounded to me as though they were announcing the beginning of a war—and then, once the game started, the occasional shouts and curses from nearby flats and the streets below. But mainly I remember Paul Gascoigne, whom I had already noticed in the Cameroon match: his long pass to Lineker—I didn’t yet know to call it a “through ball”—that led to the third goal gave me my first awareness of the beautiful geometries of soccer. In the match against Germany I couldn’t stop watching him: he didn’t look like what I thought an athlete should look like, with his chunky frame and long spindly legs, and he ran a bit like the Tin Man, upright and jerkily. Yet he made things happen, he caused constant trouble for the opposition. And when, on receiving the yellow card that would have kept him out of the final, he broke down in tears, my eyes filled also.

Of course, I didn’t really know what was going on: I assumed that Gascoigne had been dismissed from the match, and couldn’t understand why he was so upset if he could keep playing. (He would later say, “When things are good and I can see they’re about to end I get scared, really scared. I couldn’t help but cry that night.”) But the emotional intensity of the players and the fans, especially as the match moved towards the penalty shootout, and the utter devastation on the faces of Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle when they missed their penalties, simply radiated from the screen, overwhelmingly.

When we left the flat to walk back to our hotel, there were angry drunk people on the streets of London, but not too many of them. (We would learn the next day that the more violent ones had congregated in Trafalgar Square, and were thankful that our walk home hadn’t taken us in that direction.) Most of the people we saw looked dazed, spent, and yet somehow exhilarated. It was clear that something of great import had just happened to them. And it was clear that for the rest of my life I would be a soccer fan.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.


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