England has a long, painful history of losing in dramatic fashion at major tournaments. In the 1972 World Cup final, West Germany beat England in extra time thanks to a Gerd Müller winner. Then, in the 1990 World Cup semifinal, Germany beat Bobby Robson’s side on penalties. Just six years later, Germany defeated England on penalties again in the Euro semifinal.
Those past failures, however, are powerless. Put another way, the failures in and of themselves cannot affect England’s confidence today — but the way that England players, fans and soccer media relate to those failures matters greatly. And unfortunately, perhaps as a result of England’s aging population, the nation has an impressive collective memory. Every failure, every mishap, every penalty miss is immortalized in the national psyche. England manager Gareth Southgate’s international career is still defined by his penalty miss in 1996 despite having taken the Three Lions to the semifinal and final of consecutive major tournaments. The blitz of abuse that Southgate suffered all those years ago still lives with him, as he admitted just more than a week ago that his failure to make his spot kick was “always going to hurt.”
And so, when England’s Bukayo Saka traipsed up to the penalty spot to take England’s fifth and final penalty Sunday in the Euro final, his fate seemed inevitable. Not only because Saka is 19 years old and was asked to take a game-deciding spot kick, but also because he knew all too well what failure would mean.
Is it any wonder, then, that at the end of 120 minutes, while Italy took a deep breath, England sighed? It was not a sigh of disappointment in having failed to score since the second minute, to be sure, but a sigh of dread. England’s poor record in penalty shootouts came to every fan’s mind. Southgate’s penalty miss at Euro ‘96 and the thought of an analogous story playing out made all of England shiver. Again, it was almost as if fans knew what would happen if Southgate’s squad lost on penalties.
And how could they not? English tabloids are notorious for offering the harshest criticism of the national team and reminding the nation of its many footballing failures every chance it gets. Since taking over as manager in 2016, one of Southgate’s biggest accomplishments has been gaining back the trust of the pessimistic English media. Articles published in popular tabloids such as The Sun range from scorched-earth editorials about player performances to columns criticizing Raheem Sterling’s tattoos.
A country that mercilessly criticized a 23-year-old player for a tattoo dedicated to his father back in 2018 could never be expected to offer much in the way of support to the three players who missed their penalties Sunday. To make matters worse, not only did English fans fully expect a barrage of media criticism aimed at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Saka, but they also knew that much of it would be explicit racial abuse.
For instance, in an interview with ESPN FC on Monday, former England player Gary Neville admitted he was not at all surprised with the racial abuse that followed England’s loss.
“What did you expect?” Neville said. “The minute that Bukayo Saka, Rashford and Sancho missed last night, I knew we would be waking up this morning to headlines of racist abuse.”
Indeed, England lost to Italy, but not for lack of talent or experience. England lost because it knew what failure would mean — racism, nasty headlines, a lifetime of shame — and so played in hopes of not losing rather than in hopes of winning. Why would football ever come home to a nation that plays the game so tentatively? Perhaps the beautiful game is simply incapable of rewarding such a scornful place.
Contact William Cooke him at email@example.com.