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July 3rd 2018

We did it!!
The first football tournament I remember was Euro 96, when I was ten years old - a great age to first experience international football, and a superb tournament for England fans in general. We beat Scotland with that lovely Gazza chip over Colin Hendry; we demolished the Netherlands 4-1 with a brace each from Shearer and Sheringham; we came so, so close to beating Germany in the semi-finals before, heart-breakingly, losing on penalties. We also, though, won a penalty shoot-out against Spain: the first time I'd ever seen a football match settled on penalties. It gave me a very false impression of what it would be like watching England from 12 yards out.
And now, 22 years and five shootouts later, we've done it again. For the first time since the first time, I've seen England win on penalties. It's an incredible feeling. After Germany, Argentina, Portugal, Portugal & Italy, it became very easy to believe that England were in fact cursed, that far from being a lottery, penalty shootouts were specifically designed to knock us out of tournaments. Not any more.
OK, sure, we're only through to the quarter-finals. And if we hadn't conceded an injury time equaliser we'd have beaten Colombia fair and square without all this additional stress and torment. But, actually, it feels so much better this way. And even more so because Gareth Southgate - universally recognised to be a decent, sensible bloke, and now widely tipped to be the next Prime Minister - was, of course, the man whose weak penalty saw us eliminated from Euro 96. It's all come full circle.
Back in 1996, dressed all in grey, Southgate took England's sixth penalty because he said, on the night, that he was up for it. He'd only ever taken one penalty before, and he'd missed it. He was brave, but he shouldn't have been the one to step up. 22 years later, Southgate had well and truly learned the lessons of that night - he hasn't been given much opportunity to forget about it - and made sure that the full line-up of penalty takers was decided well in advance. And, actually, decided that practising penalties was a pretty good idea. We were prepared, and although Henderson missed his penalty and caused half a nation to hide their heads in their hands, it was still a decent penalty and well-saved: every player knew what they were doing. Rocket science? No. But apparently beyond the capabilities of Hoddle, Eriksson, Capello...
If the fact that England have finally won a shootout is my favourite thing about this World Cup so far - and, in a joyous tournament with much to offer, it is - my second favourite is that my mother has, seemingly overnight, become a football fan, offering thoughts on things like Colombia's tactics and Southgate's substitutions. Welcome to the beautiful game, Mum! Based on our messaged conversations throughout the game, the tension was as difficult to bear in my parents' living room as it was at the Bristol pub where I watched, fretted & cheered along with a few dozen others. Football: it gets to everyone eventually.
Well, apart from Simon, obviously. Who didn't know the match was happening, and asked me this evening if England were in the World Cup final now.

what am I listening to?
Darkness on the Edge of Town - Bruce Springsteen
what am I reading?
Far From the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
what am I watching?
January 2018
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