THE last time Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium hosted such a huge contingent of English fans was exactly 10 years ago and about 20 000 of them remained in this arena, long after the match had ended, to celebrate a massive victory for their beloved football team.
It was a collision of London and Manchester back then and, then just like now, the battle spilled into an extra half hour after ending, as if by the design of the hands of some powerful football gods every time there is an English flavour inside this Russian stadium, with a similar 1-1 draw in regulation time.
There were tears for another 10 000 English fans, then just like now, their souls consumed and tormented by the demons of a success story which had seemingly appeared to be within the touching distance of their team, but which at the end, turned into a nightmare.
For every one of the 10 000 England fans at the Luzhniki on Wednesday night, who felt the brutality of the pain of their team’s heartbreaking defeat, you could replace each one of them with a Chelsea fan who was inside the same stadium exactly 10 years ago.
Back in 2008, the headlines were also being dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo, whose powerful header thrust Manchester United into the lead in that UEFA Champions League final at the Luzhniki Stadium.
He then went on to miss his penalty during the shootout only for his teammates to find a way to ensure his night, which had been scripting a glorious chapter for a footballer who was on a path to greatness, to bail him out of his misery as the Red Devils won that final.
Overcome by emotion, after his goalkeeper saved from Anelka for the victory, Ronaldo could not even complete the sprint with his teammates to mob the ‘keeper — in their golden hour of triumph — and the Portuguese forward collapsed into the wet field halfway through the run.
This week, when England crashed out of the World Cup after that extra-time loss to Croatia, Ronaldo was again dominating the newspaper headlines around the globe after his sensational move from European champions Real Madrid to Juventus was completed.
I have been an England fan since my romance with Manchester United started, about 30 years ago, when the Red Devils found a way to stop Liverpool’s quest for the Treble in 1977, four months into my Grade One studies, by edging the Merseyside giants 2-1 in the FA Cup final before 99 252 fans at Wembley on May 21 that year.
For United to beat that powerful Liverpool side, which had just won the English Premiership that year, and would be crowned champions of Europe just four days after that FA Cup final, was a remarkable triumph for the underdog which would make a lasting impression on my boyish imaginations and provide the powerful roots for a romance that has lasted a lifetime.
That Liverpool side had won the English league championship in ’73 and ’77 and would win the title again in ’79, ’81, ’82, ’83, ’84, ’86, ’88 and ’90, in a ruthless domination of the race, while also winning the FA Cup in ’74, ’86, ’89 and ’92, the League Cup in ’81, ’82, ’83 and ’84, the European Cup in ’77, ’78, ’81 and ’84 and the UEFA Cup in ’77.
For United to beat them in that FA Cup in ’77, through goals by Stuart “Pancho’’ Pearson and James Greenhoff, was the stuff that charmed my boyhood fantasies and laid a foundation on which a love affair, between man and football club, meant to last a lifetime, was built.
And, in the ensuing months and years, I also fell in love with the English national football team, with its subsequent failures on the international stage, just like the way my Warriors repeatedly failed in their attempts to qualify for the AFCON finals, itself a remarkable basis on which my romance with these teams flourished.
When you are a Manchester United fan from my generation, who lived through the club’s 26-year fruitless search for the league championship, it’s not always about glory that shapes your love affair with the football team that you choose to support and that is why I have so much respect for any Liverpool fan who was born after 1990, the last time this great club won the league title.
And that is why, even when my fellow United fans find it romantic to mock Arsenal for not having won the league for a dozen years, I choose not to join that bandwagon of mockery because I know what it means to retain loyalty to your football team even when success isn’t coming your way.
ENGLAND, IN SOME WAY, ARE A REMINDER OF MY BELOVED WARRIORS
When the end came at the Luzhniki on Wednesday night, it wasn’t something spectacular that brought the curtain down — a ball scrambled into the box, a defender who had switched off, a swing of the left foot from probably the most ineffective player on the field, until then, and doom, gloom and no room for a Cinderella English ending.
The clock was now ticking towards the two hour mark, for a game that should ordinarily be settled inside one-and-half hours, a number of limbs had long divorced themselves from the link that connects them to the brain and the number of tired bodies on the field, and tormented souls, off the field, were mounting in their millions.
The world held its breath, time appeared to stand still, Mario Mandzukic swung his left foot, the connection was sweet, was true, was deadly and the ball drifted past the goalkeeper and found its target and, just like that, from where Harry Kane had fluffed his golden chance with the right leg, the decisive blow was thrown.
And the difference, between playing in a meaningless third-place play-off today and the grand final for the right to be called Champions of the World, was made as the gritty Croats, a country of just four million people whose President loves to show off her body in a bikini on the beach, forced their way into a battle for the ultimate prize in this game.
I have always found the Three Lions to be a striking English clone of the Warriors, in more ways than one, from an identical history of underachievement when it comes to international football, to the loyalty their fan bases who never lose hope despite a catalogue of the heartbreaks they have suffered over time.
From having a media that believes in them, despite their obvious limitations, leading its readership to believe they will always be Champions every time a major tournament comes along, to the usual heartbreaking stories which the two teams usually inevitably script when the real challenge comes along.
From their disastrous flirtation with foreign coaches, who cost them a leg and an arm in a fruitless quest to transform them into major forces to their tendency to find refugee, and cold comfort, in a past which they both believe was a time when their greatness was paraded with the distinction their identity deserve.
Where they still talk about ‘66 and everything that their World Cup success represented — the romance, the suspense, the ecstasy, the nation-building in England — we also still conveniently retreat to the Dream Team era to celebrate a time when Reinhard Fabisch and his Warriors made us believe and brought us within 90 minutes of a place at the ’94 World Cup.
That more than a quarter-of-a-century has passed since those days of the Dream Team, and more than half-a-century has passed since those days when England were champions of the world in football, doesn’t seem to matter to us at all in our collective obsession with that past.
Watching the English at the World Cup in Russia was, in more ways than one, like watching the Warriors in action — especially the two teams’ lack of a creative midfielder, a gifted playmaker who can influence the game with one magical move, who can dictate the pace the game in the crucial midfield area the way someone like Luka Modric does for Croatia and who can be the creative hub of the team.
The play is usually one-dimensional, the ball has to be pumped by the defence into the attacking third, in the hope that when it lands, it will fall into the path of a teammate, possibly Harry Kane in the case of the Three Lions who were in Russia, and possibly Knowledge Musona, in the case of our Warriors nowadays.
It gets the shape of some ping-pong, where the midfield is eliminated and a department, which is supposed to be the creative hub of the team, is by-passed by a formula that is allergic to the ball spending time in that key area, because the two teams don’t have the artists who are the ball players and can produce some magic with their touches and vision.
After the Warriors defeat in the friendly international against Botswana on Independence Day at the National Sports Stadium, coach Sunday Chidzambwa, pointed to his team’s Achilles Heel.
“Gone are the days when we had players like Ronald ‘Gidiza’ Sibanda, Lloyd Mutasa. We really need to look around for players of that calibre in that central midfield,’’ he said in his post-match analysis.
“We were not creative at all. I think we really need to look around for those creative central midfielders. We still have a problem in that area.’’
The same was also true for this English team and it’s not a coincidence that most of their goals came via set-pieces and that’s why England ranked as low as 21, out of the 32 teams that were in Russia, in terms of shots on target from open play at the World Cup with the Three Lions having only seven.
Brazil, who fell in the quarter-finals, led the way with 32, Belgium were in second place with 28, Croatia have 21, France 18, Spain 17, Germany 15 which means that even the Germans, who went home early, had twice as many shots on target from open play than the English because of the superiority of their creativity.
England had 110 long balls pumped into the opponents half, bypassing the midfield, while Belgium had only 70 long balls.
SOUTHGATE’S SUCCESS SHOULD INSPIRE EVERY COACH NEVER
TO GIVE UP
There is no doubt that Gareth Southgate has been a huge success with this English team which arrived in Russia amid depressed optimism at home with many dismissing their chances of making an impression at the World Cup and most pundits in agreement the team would be knocked out early into the tournament.
Such was the depression, among their fans, many English supporters chose not to even travel to Russia and when the Three Lions took on Colombia in the Round of 16 match, there were only 3 000 English fans among the 44 800 supporters inside the stadium that was painted in the golden colours of the South Americans.
Southgate’s appointment was not warmly embraced by most of the English fans who felt that he was a lightweight coach and who didn’t have the CV that was needed to transform a team that had a tradition of under-achievement on the big stages.
After all, many of the supporters said, this was the same Southgate who failed at Middlesbrough and was sacked in October 2009 after the club, who had been in the Premier League for 11 seasons, were relegated into the Championship.
The Middlesbrough fans rallied against Southgate, calling for his axing, after their club crashed out of the Premiership with only 32 points, having leaked 57 goals and scored the least number of goals in the league with only 28 goals to their credit.
Chairman Steve Gibson, a man who is known to stick with his coaches in good and bad times, was forced to wield the axe and Southgate’s career looked doomed until he resurfaced as the England Under-21 coach.
His time as the Under-21 coach did not get off to a flying start, a 1-0 win over lightweights Moldova was sharply criticised, and although the team eventually qualified for the European Under-21 Championships in 2015, which were also being used as qualifiers for the 2016 Olympics, England struggled at the showcase held in the Czech Republic.
Southgate’s team had the likes of Harry Kane, John Stones, Jesse Lingard and Reuben Loftus-Cheek, players which the coach would take to Russia with the senior English team three years down the line, while other key players were Jack Butland, Calum Chambers and Nathan Redmond.
England began the 2015 European Under-21 Championships with a 0-1 loss at the hands of Portugal, followed that with a 1-0 win over Sweden before they received a true reality check in a 1-3 defeat to Italy with Southgate’s men ending their campaign bottom of the group.
So, when the coach was appointed to lead the England senior team for the World Cup, given his poor record at Middlesbrough and with the England Under-12, many were right to question if the country’s football leaders had lost their minds.
However, Southgate has proved wrong all those who questioned him with his success story in Russia and this should also provide the inspiration for many coaches that they should never give up, simply because they failed at one club, or because they failed in one adventure.
Maybe, looking at Southgate’s success in Russia, we should also be asking ourselves some tough questions about the way we treat our coaches, and condemn them as failures the moment they fail to reach certain targets that we would have set for ourselves, when in reality they might just be the Special Ones whose time has probably not yet arrived.
How do we justify the way we hounded Mhofu from his position as Warriors coach, forcing him to quit after the 2004 AFCON finals, simply because we were not happy that our Warriors had just won one match at the showcase, a 2-1 victory over Algeria, even though it was our first dance at this level?
How do we justify the criticism we all piled on Mhofu, simply because he chose to keep sitting on the bench rather than barking instructions from the touchline, when we were being torn apart by Cameroon in that AFCON finals game in Tunisia and did Pasuwa really fail in Gabon, as we have been singing all along, or just needed more time and support?
At least, our colleagues in England are now seeing the bigger picture.
“I’m still heartbroken and never felt so gutted,’’ said defender Kyle Walker after the team’s loss to Croatia. “But there’s something I want to say. This past month, I’ve seen videos going around, photos been sent to me. That felt so good for us here in Russia, and united us more and more, just like it did in our country.
“We might live in a time where sometimes it’s easier to be negative than positive, or to divide than to unite, but England: let’s keep this unity alive. I love you.’’
Yes, Kyle, we live in really strange times.
To God Be The Glory!
Come on Warriors!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Text Feedback — 0772545199, WhatsApp Messenger — 0772545199. Email — [email protected], Skype — sharuko58
Chat with me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @Chakariboy, interact with me on Viber or read my material in The Southern Times or on www.sportszone.co.zw. The informative ZBC weekly television football magazine programme, Game Plan, where I join the legendary Charles “CNN” Mabika and producer Craig “Master Craig’’ Katsande every Wednesday night at 21.15pm, is currently on a World Cup break.