Yesterday I attended my first England game for more than a decade. I first gave up England in 1990, shortly after Chris Waddle belted the bar over the crossbar against Germany and I realised that I already had one useless team in my life and didn’t need another.
Nevertheless in 1996 I found myself at Wembley for England v Holland, one of the iconic England games of my generation simply for the fact it epitomised the ambition England will never satisfactorily deliver on. Pathetically, the one thing I can remember is that I refused to celebrate any goal scored by Tottenham’s Teddy Sheringham, so in my mind England won 2-1 rather than 4-1, meaning Scotland should have qualified for the next round instead of Holland, something that UEFA to their eternal discredit chose to ignore despite my send them repeated letters pointing out the error.
Interest sort of reignited, I decided to go to Paris to watch England v Brazil in Le Tournoi, a friendly tournament involving England, France and Brazil. Big mistake. I have never spent 90 minutes in the company of a more unpleasant group of men, and I’ve been to Millwall-Chelsea. It was if you took the worst one per cent of supporters from every club in the country and decanted them all in the Parc Des Princes stand, with ten cans of Special Brew, subsidised lobotomies and shirt-drenching humidity. The casual racism and sexism, the witlessness, the stupidity, the ugliness – my god, it was hideous. So that was it: by the time England played Scotland in the play-off for the 2000 European Championships, I was cheering for the other side.
But there I was last night at Wembley watching England v Egypt. Why? Well, partly because I am slightly Egyptian. My mother was born in Alexandria but because her family could trace their ancestry back to Malta they held British passports even though they’d lived in Egypt for at least three generations and none of them could speak English. In 1956, when Britain attempted to reclaim the Suez Canal, her family were told they had to get out or nationalise, so they came to England, living in a former German POW camp in Yorkshire before settling in Tooting. Thanks to silly old Eden and Nasser, the strong man of Egypt, I came to exist. It doesn’t make me Egyptian at all really, but it’s a nice story.
So, notwithstanding my deep personal connection to the two teams, I was not looking forward to the game. And for the first twenty minutes, it was much as I expected. There were crap jokes about suicide bombers, the customary booing of one sacrificial lamb (currently John Terry) and the terrible band playing terrible songs. England fans will perhaps always represent the very worst aspects of football support from any era, and, in the modern fashion, this lot had all the passion and originality of people watching a pantomime.
Then Egypt took the lead. I tried not to snicker.
But, slowly, things improved. The crowd stopped booing Terry and he put in his best performance for a month; SWP made the correct decision with the ball, twice; and there was Wayne Rooney.
One of the reasons I go to football is for that one moment each game when a footballer does something that makes me gasp and think ‘did he really just do that?’. Rooney provided that moment last night, bring down a high ball on the near touchline with a soft touch that stopped the ball with a smidgen of back spin and gave him, what, half-a-second, perhaps less, than he should have had. It was a more important moment than any of the goals, because it emphasised just what a marvellous player Wayne Rooney is, and how important he is to an England team that is otherwise horribly workmanlike. Think back to that 1990 World Cup squad and England had players like Beardsley, Waddle, Barnes, Steven and Gascoigne (plus Hoddle left at home); this team only has Rooney. Capello can mould them into a strong unit, but only Rooney will make anybody coo.
So not all bad then, and unlike some people, I really am looking forward to the World Cup, perhaps because I still don’t care how England perform. As for last night, Tottenham’s Crouch scored twice, SWP got another so England drew 1-1, an entirely appropriate sharing of honours for us Anglo-Egyptian mongrels, who went home happy.