So once again a critical England game has been decided by penalties.
And once again they lost, this time to Italy.
A heart-breaking night for all but the most hardened England foes.
Whatever the shortcomings of English football, they don’t deserve to keep losing on shoot outs, as in 1990 World Cup, 1996 Euros, and 1998 World Cup. And they do not deserve the 55 barren years that they have now had without winning either of these two key international tournaments.
Soccer is a sport with influences from around the world, but the sport we know today has its origins above all in England, stretching back more than 1,000 years. England has in some shape or form been near the heart of football ever since.
It is currently host to one of the greatest competitions in sporting history – the Premier League – with leading teams that have passionate followings around the world.
Yet the England national team itself has somehow managed not to reach the heights of the game since its famous World Cup victory in 1966. Whatever the shortcomings of the English game, it has not deserved those long, barren 55 years. In fact, England had not in that time even been a runner-up in a European or World Cup finals until last night.
Plenty of people in Northern Ireland, as in Scotland and Wales, will never bring themselves to support England. But many others here did back them in this tournament, once Northern Ireland had not qualified. As the career of George Best, one of football’s all-time greats shows, top level football in NI is inextricably linked to the club game across the Irish Sea.
In any event, the rise in England’s standing is good for the UK, and reflects a renaissance in British sport – including in tennis and athletics – since the 1990s when governments began to put emphasis on cultivating sporting achievements.
And who could not admire the way that a mild mannered Englishman – Gareth Southgate – has stewarded his team to this level.
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