When I was six years old, I wanted to be English. It was 1990. England reached the World Cup semi-finals, everyone fell in love with Paul Gascoigne and it felt completely natural to align yourself with Bobby Robson’s valiant but vulnerable team.
I didn’t know that Wales, the nation of my birth, had failed to qualify for the tournament, finishing below West Germany, the Netherlands and Finland in UEFA qualifying Group 4, but following months of careful prompting by my quietly despairing father, I came to realise that England was not my country. When Wales agonisingly missed out on a place at the 1994 World Cup, after a 2-1 loss to Romania in November 1993, I stretched my Wales shirt over my pillow and cried myself to sleep.
To be Welsh and a football fan in the 1990s and 2000s was to live a life of constant, quiet disappointment. Wales seemed trapped in a cycle of wretchedness, forever finding new and inventive ways of being stuffed by just about every team in Europe. They lost 7-1 to Holland, 6-4 to Turkey, 5-0 to Georgia. They played a friendly against Leyton Orient, and lost.
They wore strange, lurid away kits made by obscure brands like Lotto and Kappa that looked like they’d been fished out of a JJB Sports bargain bin. Even a player as demonstrably great as Ryan Giggs seemed diminished by association with Wales – when he could be bothered turning up – traipsing across the continent looking permanently sad and confused, a shy computer programmer obliged to go on a Magaluf stag weekend with a rowdy group of men he doesn’t know.
I made my first appearance on the Betway Insider podcast this week to talk about Roy Hodgson’s tactical conundrums with England, France’s troubled preparations for Euro 2016 and my favourite memories from reporting on major tournaments. You can listen to it here.
I caught up with the crew on Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast on Thursday to look back at the week’s Champions League quarter-final first legs. Our conversation took in the link between tiki-taka and Fernando’s moment of madness against Paris Saint-Germain, Zlatan Ibrahimović’s likely next move and Fernando Torres’s crazy sending-off against Barcelona. You can listen here.
A moving rendition of the French national anthem reverberated around London’s Wembley Stadium on Tuesday as fans of England and France paid tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks. In a crowd of 71,223 that included British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William, many stood to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ four days on from the attacks, which left 129 people dead and over 350 injured. England won a subdued match 2-0 courtesy of goals from Dele Alli and captain Wayne Rooney, but the outcome of the contest was a mere anecdote on a night thick with poignancy. “Emotionally, it was a very, very strong moment,” France manager Didier Deschamps told his post-match press conference.
Having spent four years living in Paris, and two years living just around the corner from where some of last week’s attacks took place, I found it very moving to be at Wembley on Tuesday for the friendly match between England and France. You can read my report on the night here.
Related link: Fans calm, defiant ahead of England-France game
We need to talk about winning. Because although winning matters, in one way it doesn’t matter at all. And the bit about it not mattering matters a great deal.
We have listened to professional footballers talk glibly about the importance of “winning things” and watched pundits pore over win/loss ratios and trophy tallies for so long that some of us might have started to think that we watch football for the same reasons. But although everyone obviously likes to see their team win something every once in a while, that’s not what keeps us coming back.
The British expatriates who carried football around the world in the latter years of the 19th century, alighting on quaysides in Andalusia, Buenos Aires or São Paulo with a football under their arm and a pair of rudimentary boots in their luggage, didn’t become globe-trotting evangelists for the sport because they were obsessed by winning. The fans who turned out week after week after week after week to watch Rochdale during the 36 years they spent in the English fourth tier without once being promoted or relegated weren’t in it for the glory. And when generations and generations of children have rushed into the street or onto the playing fields to replicate the feats they have seen their heroes perform in the stadium or on television, they have seldom simulated the act of raising a trophy.
Co-commentating for Sky Sports on Chelsea’s 3-1 win at Leicester City on Wednesday night, Gary Neville opined that “no-one remembers” Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United ‘Entertainers’ because they didn’t win anything. It was a throwaway remark, but as a quick glance at the reaction to what he said on Twitter demonstrated, he was wrong. For all their shortcomings, many people do remember the ‘Entertainers’, and fondly, just as people remember the magnificent Hungary team beaten by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final or the bewitching Holland side that fell to the same opposition at the conclusion of the 1974 tournament.
“The most eye-catching initiative in his sleek, 20-page manifesto is a proposal to expand the World Cup from its current 32-team format to a super-sized sporting extravaganza featuring 40 or even 48 national sides. Last year’s World Cup in Brazil was seen as one of the most successful tournaments in the competition’s 84-year history, but Figo said it was important to keep growing it for both financial and political reasons. When it was put to him that the proposals could ruin the tournament, he replied: “I don’t think so.””
I sat down for a chat with FIFA presidential candidate Luís Figo at Wembley on Thursday and you can read about our conversation here.
“There’s already one of ours who’s up there [Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa], and I wish him the best. Rémy, I think he deserves something else than Newcastle. I wouldn’t go there. You must get bored shitless in Newcastle.”
– Montpellier president Louis Nicollin on reports linking Rémy Cabella with a move to Newcastle United
“At Milan, they treated me like a king. People were courteous, welcoming and always willing to help. At a restaurant, in France, you sit down and not only do they make you wait for a very long time, but they treat you badly. It was disconcerting, but now I’ve adapted: if someone treats me badly, I treat them badly in return. I’m a real Parisian now.”
– Paris Saint-Germain’s Thiago Silva on the joys of life in the capital
Loïc Féry: “Thank you.”
Christian Gourcuff: “I’m not saying thank you to you [vous].”
Loïc Féry: “So we’re vous-ing each other now?”
Christian Gourcuff: “Yes, yes, we’re vous-ing each other now.”
– Terse exchange between Lorient president Loïc Féry and outgoing coach Christian Gourcuff, caught on camera by Canal+ after Lorient’s 4-1 loss at home to Lille on the season’s final day
“For him to be bad is one thing, but for him to be stupid is something else.”
– Nice captain Didier Digard hits out at referee Antony Gautier after being sent off for handball during a 1-1 draw at Saint-Étienne. He later apologised
“It’s not glasses he needs – it’s a Labrador!”
– Lyon midfielder Clément Grenier to referee Ruddy Buquet after a stormy 2-1 loss at home to Saint-Étienne
“I’m surprised by the unacceptable and immature attitude of Romao, who made vulgar remarks towards [Canal + pundit] Pierre Ménès and me because he couldn’t think of anything else to say after fouling me but insult me. I quote: ‘Go and suck that fat Pierre Ménès.’ Unacceptable.”
– Bafétimbi Gomis, then with Lyon, on a dispute with Marseille midfielder Alaixys Romao
“So then Mr Gomis, about the ‘son of a whore’ and ‘tramp’ that you yelled at me on the pitch yesterday – I should tweet it, right?”
– Lorient midfielder Mathieu Coutadeur suggests Gomis is no angel himself
“The atmosphere on the pitch? The French were too arrogant, as usual.”
– Sweden Under-21 player Kiese Thelin after his side eliminated their French counterparts in an Under-21 European Championship play-off
“A coach is above all someone who works in the technical domain. And there are coaches who don’t coach, like Laurent Blanc at Paris, where it’s [Blanc’s assistant] Jean-Louis Gasset who takes care of it. I don’t like this model. A coach who doesn’t control the pitch, as far as I’m concerned, is not a coach.”
– Christian Gourcuff
“I passed my coaching exams. Mr Gourcuff passed them 30 years ago. He should take them again and see that the job has evolved.”
– Blanc responds
I spoke to my friends at Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast about the opening round of Premier League fixtures, Louis van Gaal’s defensive problems at Manchester United, the battle for number-one status at Chelsea between Thibaut Courtois and Petr Čech, and Tony Pulis’s abrupt departure at Crystal Palace. You can listen here.
From post-match brawls and Twitter spats to weather vanes, broken televisions and Justin Bieber, Football Further proudly presents its seasonal compilation of the year’s best French football quotes.
“People have a good image of me. It’s not these tramps who are going to tarnish my image. They should stop lying to the French people. It annoys me that people talk about ‘your image’. My image is great in France. When I’m abroad, I don’t even talk about it. But in France it’s just these people, these parasites.”
– Patrice Evra on his friends in the media
“I go to talk to the referee. At that moment, the delegate blocks me and pushes me towards the referee. As a result, I touch the referee with my back. It happened exactly like that. I didn’t push the referee.”
– Leonardo‘s not entirely accurate account of his encounter with referee Alexandre Costa after Paris Saint-Germain’s 1-1 draw with Valenciennes in May. It ultimately costs him a 14-month suspension, effectively forcing him out of French football
“This year we’ve lost lots of players, as always, but we’ve lost something very important: the pillars of Valencia, players like [Roberto] Soldado, David Albelda or Tino Costa who talk in the changing room. Now there are lots of boot-lickers who don’t say things to your face. That’s why things aren’t going well between me and Đukić.”
– Adil Rami explains why his relationship with Valencia coach Miroslav Đukić has broken down. And is promptly frozen out of the squad
“There was an altercation that I wasn’t involved in. My goalkeeping coach, Fabrice Grange, was surrounded by a load of people who were pushing him. Jean-Michel Aulas arrived – I don’t know why. All I did was push him back. He says that I hit him in the back, which is scandalous. If I’d done that, he wouldn’t have been able to do an interview with Canal+ three minutes later.”
– Saint-Etienne goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier rejects an accusation from Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas that he punched him during a tunnel scuffle after a heated derby du Rhône
“And what’s the other one called, Screwdriver? Rolland Screwdriver. All he does is talk.”
– Evra again, unwittingly rechristening manager/pundit Rolland Courbis ‘Rolland Tournevis’
“After the Euro, the media attention was very difficult to digest. I’d say that it ruined my season a bit. Everyone talked to me about it. I handled the situation badly, I accept that. I should have given a mea culpa. I shut myself off and, with hindsight, I realise that I was wrong.”
– Samri Nasri reflects on Euro 2012
“If I had to do everything again, if I had the possibility to relive exactly the same life, I’d do it, I’d want the same one. I’d do everything the same. It’s beautiful, all the same. I’m happy with what I’ve experienced up to now.”
– Éric Abidal on his battle with liver problems
“Above my mantelpiece, in the living room. My wife’s prepared everything.”
– Asked where he would put the Ballon d’Or trophy if he won it, Franck Ribéry reveals that he’s barely given it any thought at all
“When the coach told me I was playing, I said: ‘We’re going to Brazil.’ It doesn’t matter how. If I’d had to score with my hand, the ball would have been in the back of the net.”
– Mamadou Sakho, who scores two goals as France overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Ukraine to book their place at next year’s World Cup
“I’d never seen such an atmosphere at the Stade de France. It was a beautiful moment to experience, all those people behind us, the flags, the chants. From the hotel to the stadium we felt that force pushing us.”
– Captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris
– So often the scourge of the national team, L’Équipe takes its cue from Ali G with a simple one-word headline the day after the match