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England Wins a Shootout!

July 4th, 2018 · No Comments · English Premier League, Football, Russia 2018, soccer, World Cup

I now am a fan of England, at Russia 2018. And not just because the rest of my preferred teams have been eliminated.

As noted a few weeks ago, I was around a lot of English soccer, in six-plus years in Abu Dhabi, and if you are a fan of the Premier League, as I now am, you cannot help but become sucked into the Three Lions vortex.

(Also, I can understand what England’s guys are saying, even the Geordies. Never discount that.)

So, yes, I was pleased to see them oust an ill-tempered Colombia side … via shootout!

Shootouts since 1990 had been to England what kryptonite is to Superman: The Three Lions had won only one of seven shootouts in major competitions — which in their case meant the World Cup (0-for-3) and the European Championship (1-for-3), with the one shootout victory coming in the 1996 Euros.

Soccer people like to say a shootout is a “lottery” or a “coin flip”. That is, random.

But England was challenging that notion. It’s unusual to toss a coin seven times and get six tails. It was before the most recent Euros that Frank Lampard, I think it was, said he thought maybe there was something to England’s awful shootout results besides bad luck.

Turns out, the current England coach, Gareth Southgate, who is just now beginning to be recognized on the streets of London (but only if he has on his trademark vest and tie), was personally involved in the shootout hex, back before it became a “thing”.

In 1996, when England hosted the Euros, the Lions won their first turn in the “lottery”, ousting Spain 4-2 in the quarterfinals, but then lost to Germany 6-5 in a semifinal shootout.

In the latter case, both sides converted their first five tries, but then Southgate’s effort (always described in English media as “weak”) was saved and Andreas Moller scored the winner for Germany.

Southgate now is the primly dressed coach of England’s national team, having taken over after previous England coach Sam Allardyce stuck his foot in it, telling a fictitious Asian “businessman” about how to circumvent third-party ownership — breaking the rules, that is — while the sting was being tape-recorded. It was a scandal, all right.

Big Sam was duly fired, and Southgate apparently was hanging around the offices of the Football Association and someone in the organization said, “Hey, Southgate looks good in the dugout and seems pleasant enough,” and he was hired in late 2016 on a “caretaker” basis, and after four games unbeaten he was given the full-time gig.

(It reminds me of how Claudius suddenly took over as emperor of the Roman Empire, in the year 41, when the Praetorian Guard assassinated the emperor Caligula, who was mad as a hatter [and violent as a Colombian midfielder]. As the story goes, the Praetorians found Claudius, the last male in the Julian line, hiding in the curtains and made him emperor by acclamation.)

Who knew Southgate could coach at that international level? No one did, because his previous experience was leading Middlesbrough for three seasons in the previous decade, and then a spell coaching the England Under-21s. Like Claudius, Southgate may be in charge almost accidentally, but he is turning out to be up to the job; England finished unbeaten in 10 matches during Uefa qualifying.

One of Southgate’s top priorities, it has been reported, after taking over as England coach, was stressing the importance of shootouts, a subject with which he had first-hand knowledge.

He attacked the project with solutions both mental and physical. Harry Kane said Southgate made a point of having the players line up and take penalties at the end of training sessions, when they were exhausted — trying to replicate the weight-of-the-world moment that is walking up to the spot with the match on the line.

England missed only one penalty against Colombia, the one taken by Jordan Henderson — and I called that one, from my couch in France, having watched Henderson struggle through the match.

Henderson’s miss had the feel of being fatal, leaving Colombia ahead 3-2 and ready to take the next shot. “England’s Curse” was being talked about around the world about then … but Colombia’s Mateus Uribe banged one off the post, and Kieran Trippier walked up and buried one like he does it every day after practice, and it was 4-4.

Then came a fabulous save by England keeper Jordan Pickford of Carlos Bacca’s well-struck PK, and Eric Dier ended it by rolling in his shot.

It led to wild celebrations all over England, because winning via shootout was particularly sweet for any England fan over the age of 35. That is, for those who lived through nearly three decades of the Three Lions choking at spot kicks.

Now England is in the quarterfinals, against a definitely beatable Swedish side, and if they win that one they get the winner of Russia versus Croatia. Again, not a match England can’t survive … especially now that the can’t-win-in-shootouts monkey is off their backs.



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