You know, I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if England never won the World Cup. Would we still have to endure relentless adverts in the build-up to each competition hinting and depicting imminent success? Would the nation have acted so bullish about our chances each time we approached the latest tournament? Would the earth be spinning at a slightly different angle on its axis? Who knows.
All I do know is what I’ve seen: five World Cup competitions entered, none won, one semi final, two quarter finals and two last 16 exits. Oh, and three penalty shoot-outs that went tits up. Ok, so my memories of England’s World Cup adventures aren’t exactly brimming with fondness, which is why I decided to widen my focus when listing my Top 10 World Cup moments.
I’ve tried to look beyond the obvious in an attempt to offer something different, although some moments really couldn’t be ignored. To say these are in any order would be stretching the truth somewhat, and to say these are my favourite moments would be an outright lie. But they’re moments of sorts; memories that remain rather vivid.
So then, in traditional Top 10 style we start with 10 – or ‘X’, as the Romans would say…
10. Shane Smeltz shocks the Azzurri (Italy v New Zealand, 2010)
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the rise of Rickie Lambert from lower league journeyman to potential World Cup star. But Lambert hasn’t scored a World Cup goal (yet) and, even if he did, he never played as low as the Isthmian League for AFC Wimbledon. Seven minutes into New Zealand’s group match against World Cup holders Italy, Shane Smeltz – a Gold Coast United player at the time – put the Kiwis in front. I’m not sure it was a goal that rocked the world, but it certainly got Radio 5 Live rather excited. Italy equalised but New Zealand held out for a 1-1 draw and that helped Smeltz secure a move to Chinese club Shandong Luneng… where he lasted just five days, before signing for Turkish Super League club Gençlerbirliği. Good luck pronouncing that.
9. David Platt’s extra time winner (England v Belgium, 1990)
I was just seven years old when England played at Italia ’90 – this is my earliest World Cup memory. It sticks out so vividly because I was allowed to stay up so late to see it. Of course, I had absolutely zero appreciation for the technical ability of the goal at the time – and I probably didn’t quite understand the significance of it being in the last minute of extra time (even if John Motson mentioned it explicitly in his now famous commentary), but I remember it made my dad very happy. What made me happy was that I hadn’t actually watched much of the bore-fest and happened to catch the magic moment during one of the rare occasions when I was looking at the TV screen and not at my amazing Lego construction.
8. Germans lose on home soil in semi-final (Germany v Italy, 2006)
My dad had drummed it into me over the years that the Germans were experts at doing ‘just enough’. The clearest example of this was the way they were gracious enough to lose against us 5-1 in Munich when qualifying for the World Cup in 2002, and yet despite that defeat they still qualified for the tournament and went further than England. When the moment mattered, Germany knew how to squeeze past. There have been some terrible goalless draws in World Cups gone by, but this one was an exception – and yes, I’m aware it didn’t finish 0-0. It was close, but two late, late goals from Italy dumped the Germans out of their own party, and just like David Platt’s goal had done 16 years earlier, this made my dad very happy.
7. Luis Suarez acts like the despicable bell-end we all know he is (Uruguay v Ghana, 2010)
I don’t really have a problem with Suarez deliberately batting the ball away with his arm while stood on his own goal line in this tense quarter final match. I’m sure it was instinctive and I believe that most other footballers would’ve done the same in a similar situation. What I had issue with (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one) was Suarez’s reaction when Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty that should have taken Ghana through to the semi final. Rather than heading to the dressing room Suarez was allowed to lurk around the dugout area to witness the miss. He then ran on to the pitch after the shoot-out to celebrate Uruguay’s win with his teammates, which really was difficult to watch.
6. The Wink (England v Portugal, 2006)
I don’t think I need to say much on this one – I’d only be repeating what other people have said. Perhaps my favourite reaction to the calculated effort to get Wayne Rooney sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho’s balls (don’t get me wrong, I think Rooney could’ve not stamped on his balls) was that of the BBC’s Alan Shearer, who suggested Rooney should ‘stick one’ on Ronaldo in training – maybe just as Grimsby’s Justin Whittle had ‘stuck one’ on Alan Shearer when Newcastle visited Blundell Park earlier that season for a League Cup game.
5. The referees that were in no way biased (South Korea v Italy, 2002)
Although I’ve never understood why, it’s some kind of rule that home nations do well in World Cup tournaments (a luxury not afforded to poor old South Africa in 2010, incidentally – they must have upset God or something). But in 2002 the South Koreans must have had more than Lady Luck on their side. Italy, who they met in the quarter finals, had already been on the receiving end of some bad refereeing decisions, before they were knocked out by South Korea in controversial circumstances. Totti received a second yellow card for diving when he had legitimate claims for a penalty, and then 10-man Italy had a legitimate goal disallowed at 1-1 before South Korea scored a golden goal to send them packing. It was ok if you liked drama and weren’t an Italy fan.
4. Dennis Bergkamp’s wonder goal (The Netherlands v Argentina, 1998)
DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! AAAAUUUGH!! Some things don’t need describing or explaining. And it’s better if you watch the moment with Dutch commentary. It’s certainly the best World Cup goal I’ve seen live.
3. Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal (England v Argentina, 1998)
I remember watching this match round a girl’s house (I was 15). Sadly, there were plenty of other lads there – and, anyway, she already had a boyfriend. I’m not sure what I was doing there, really. It was back in the day when I retained a sneaky suspicion that girls might just fancy me if I lurked around them often enough. Obviously now I know that practice to be weird and creepy. Anyway, the Owen goal had gone in, Beckham had been sent off, I was insisting that we all listen to the ITV World Cup theme tune I’d bought at Woolworths while we waited for extra time to begin (it got voted down). Sol Campbell’s goal – which was disallowed because of Alan Shearer’s elbows – remains the goal I’ve celebrated longest before realising it was chalked off. It was a pretty embarrassing night all round, come to think of it. I literally have no idea why I’ve put this at 3.
2. Hey Zinedine, your mum’s a whore (Italy v France, 2006)
That goal Zidane scored for Real Madrid in the Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen was quality, but to be honest I never watched enough European football during my teenage years to know or appreciate how good he was. So I didn’t buy into all the compliments that were lavished upon him. I saw him play well in France ’98 and score that goal for Real, and not much else. In fact I began to dislike him based purely on the fact that everyone else loved him. Was there a part of me that smirked when he was sent off for headbutting Marco Materazzi, out of pure and evil naivety? Yes. “Zidane’s career ends in disgrace!” shouts Motty. “He’s an overrated thug anyway,” I said, proudly and ignorantly, like I was the only one who had ‘worked him out’.
1. Beckham lays an Argentine ghost to rest (England v Argentina, 2002)
David Beckham wasn’t popular when he got sent off against Argentina in 1998. I remember the 1998/99 Premier League season well, and some of the stuff he had to deal with – looking back now, knowing what he went on to achieve – was pretty shocking. And I think we all feel a bit embarrassed by it now, if we’re all completely honest. His road to redemption was long, and after Phil Neville swung a leg in the dying moments of the Euro 2000 group game against Romania to concede a penalty that dumped England out of the tournament, the pressue on Beckham eased. By the time he’d placed the ball on the spot in the group match against Argentina in the stadium that had the roof, he had most England supporters back on his side. And when he slammed it into the net (and Motty started banging on about smashing crockery at home) you could see in his celebration that he had finally overcome something that had been haunting him for years. It was no Psycho celebration of Euro ’96, but young David looked like he was about to cry with passion and emotion – and a lot of us felt the same at that moment.
It was a bloody awful penalty, by the way.