My Whatsapp has just pinged. It’s my stepson. “Dolazi kući,” he says. Eh? I google-translate it.

It means ‘It’s coming home’. In Croatian.

Please excuse me while I stop writing, close the laptop, open a window, and ARGGGGHHH like three cheated lions, then furiously text back “*%^&*!” in Croatian.

Now, where were we? Ah, yes, the World Cup. This was an odd one for me. For the first time ever, on this the 11th World Cup of my life, I did not feel like supporting England; Brexit betrayal and all that. “Mama, football should not be about politics,” my daughter admonished. I rolled my eyes. “Pfftt, of course it is!”

So although I watched the games, I was initially aloofish whenever England played. Which is saying something, seeing as my life timeline is configured around England games in World Cups. Mexico 1986 was still in black-and-white, still another year to go before we got colour television. I squinted at the grains on the television set as Maradona’s handball kicked England out of the quarter final, then I dashed to the pjazza where my father was helping in the first ever village Lejla Maltija, to tell him the score.

The year of Italia Novanta, the year my mother gave in to my wearing shoulder paddings (cringe cringe), was the year England reached the semis. For the first time since 1966! The joy! The hope! The penalties! And they lost against Germany.

During France 1998, I quit my job and applied to go and study in the UK. England lost again to Argentina in the Round of 16. My daughter was born the year England were beaten out of the quarter finals by Portugal. I was introduced to the Significant Other’s friends during the World Cup 2014 Italy against England match. I was the only one siding with England. England lost 1-2.

Football gave us the chance to roar, to vent, to hug

Notwithstanding my England fandom, this year I was lukewarm. If England don’t want to be European, then why support them? That’s it, I had fallen out of love.

But then, something happened. And that something was the England coach, Gareth Southgate, with that waistcoat, like a modern-day Churchill. In one of his interviews he said: “In England we have spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is. I think as a team we represent that modern identity and hopefully people can connect with us.”

I had a good look at this 2018 team, full of diversity and young 20-somethings and knew that he was a Remainer. Also, the team played differently: no more stupid long balls, instead it was all about ball possession and teamwork.

And then there was that goalie, Pickford. Don’t you think he looks exactly like Rocky in Rocky 1? The way he opens his mouth to shout directions is exactly the way Rocky shouts “Adrian” at the end of the movie. “I embrace the moment and play in the moment,” Pickford said during a press conference. Is it possible, I asked myself, that England has players who are actually zen?

They went and beat Sweden, the team that had put Italy out of the qualifiers, and made it to the semis. And the reaction of the England players was muted, restrained, clapping at the audience, and ‘let’s do this’; my reaction was not muted at all – I did not stop singing: “It’s coming home”.

By last Wednesday I was a bag of nerves, rooting for England in a house where everyone sides with the team playing against. They scored on the fourth minute. A beauty of a goal in the fourth minute. Is there a sound more delirious than shouting ‘Goal!’ at the highest decibel possible? Sadly, there were no more goals. They lost, and Croatia cried “Dolazi kući”. And I was back to feeling what it feels like to be an England fan.

But it was good while it lasted and I’m delighted that it was an exciting World Cup throughout. This was not the year for players who think too highly of themselves – Ronaldo, who puts icepacks on his cheeks before he goes out of the dressing room for a rosy glow, was out in the Round of 16; Maradona, and that other Argentinian, the hyper coach Jorge Sampaoli, looked totally out of synch with their melodrama.

I rooted for Iceland, because of their population size like ours and their dentist coach; I rooted for Japan, whose players scrubbed clean the dressing room and left the politest ‘thank you’ note in the world; I supported Belgium, be­cause our dog is Belgian and she needed someone on her side; I was absolutely in love with the presenters who said things like “Spain on the plane or stuck in Russian rain”; and I loved reading fans’ stories of how during weddings, church boards used for hymn numbers were converted into football scoreboards.

The world needed football more than anything else this month, where everywhere,  in Malta and in the rest of the world, is looking bleak. For a month, football came to our homes and lifted the international mood, by giving us the chance to roar, to vent, to hug, to tease, to laugh. Nothing makes humans happier than the World Cup, I say.

Tonight enjoy the final between France and Croatia. For once, the stepson and I will be siding with the same team. Vive la France.
twitter: @krischetcuti

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us