Kindness begins with the understanding that we all struggle.Charles Glassman
Picture the scene. 11th July 2021. Wembley Stadium, London. 65 000 people in attendance. England vs Italy. The final of the European Men’s Football Championships. England’s first major final since our only previous tournament triumph back at the World Cup of 1966. 55 years on, this was an incredible opportunity for this current generation of young, exciting England players to etch their names in the country’s long, illustrious sporting history. To make the world stand up and take notice. To make themselves heroes and legends in a country that lives and breaths Football. In a country that views Football more as a religion than a mere sport.
After years of bad luck, disappointment, frustration and ‘what could have been’ moments, this truly felt like it could be our time. The nation sensed victory and definitely believed that we could go all the way. Chants of ‘It’s Coming Home’ and renditions of ‘Sweet Caroline’ swarmed social media, pubs, streets, people’s homes and football stadia the world over. Having began our Euro 2020 campaign with a team consisting of very good talent, yet still considered massive underdogs, we’d deservedly made our way through to the showpiece final having played a total of 6 games and won 5. Aside from an underwhelming 0-0 draw with neighbours Scotland in our 2nd group game at Wembley, we’d displayed immense quality, promise and composure in defeating Croatia 1-0, Czech Republic 1-0, arch-rivals Germany 2-0 in the last 16; Ukraine 4-0 in the Quarter-finals and Denmark 2-1 in the semi-finals. With only 1 goal conceded and 10 scored, it’s fair to say that Gareth Southgate’s team had exceeded the expectations of most in reaching the final itself.
Once the final got underway, England immediately took the stranglehold and managed to breach the Italian defence after only 2 minutes to go ahead through a fantastic goal by Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw. With the confidence and belief of many already sky high, people needed zero invitation to get even more excited. Was this our time? Could this be different? Was all the prior hurt worth it for this moment? Is this our destiny? After a difficult 18 months or so battling the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, could this be the boost that we desperately need as a nation? That stand-out moment that reminds us what you can achieve through hard work and persistence; that gives people hope for a future that looms outside of isolation and lockdowns.
Having settled down from the hysteria and sheer emotion that England’s early goal ultimately brung, as I’m sure many others can relate to, Italy slowly and surely worked their way back into game. Although half-time came and England still had the advantage of a lead, it was not long until the pressure, determination and skill of the Italian’s paid off as defender Leonardo Bonucci found the net in the 66th minute of the 90. Now level at 1 apiece, Italy began to further assert their dominance and looked the more likely to score again as England became more defensive and the normal game was drawing to its conclusion. Though both teams had their moments as the match progressed through the subsequent first and second halves of extra time, penalties were required to decide the result as neither side could manage another goal after 120 minutes of play.
With Italy going first in the shootout, England were left needing to score their final penalty to take the contest to sudden death after Italy had scored 3/5 and England managed 2/4. Tasked with the responsibility and expectation of a nation on his shoulders, 19 year-old Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka stepped forward, only to have his penalty saved and confirm Italy’s victory. As the celebration of Italy’s players, coaching staff and fans blew up right around him, Saka fell to his haunches with visible, immeasurable heartbreak. Yes we had just missed out on a major trophy once again, and yes Italy probably deserved the victory overall, however the torrent of racist abuse that Saka endured following the end of the match was nothing short of disgusting. Disappointment may be inevitable after such a devastating defeat, yet this does not mean that Saka, along with Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, deserved slurs of vile, abhorrent hate for simply missing a penalty. Social media companies take note- it’s time to hold these people accountable!
Instead of criticising them for missing, isn’t it time we shift our focus and praise them for having the courage and guts to step-up and take a penalty in the first place? After all, the massive pressure and expectation of an entire nation cannot be easy, therefore if someone puts their hand up and states they’re happy to take on that pressure, surely it should be hugely admired and respected.
Just because somebody is famous, earns great money or is perceived to automatically have an amazing life, it doesn’t give you a right to abuse them when something goes wrong. Like the fans, the players will be bitterly disappointed at the final result too, so it’s crucial we support them through this tough time. Failure is something everybody experiences at some point; it’s how we learn from it that really counts!
Thanks for reading,