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England’s heartbreak at Wembley By Bola Bolawole
Euro 2020 has come and gone but the reverberations are bound to continue for some time to come. To start with, COVID-19 ensured that the competition, which should have been held in 2020, got transferred to 2021. While Italy, the unexpected winners, may continue to moon glide and walk tall with their shoulders held high, the English would still be wondering what hit them. They got so close but missed it – and on home turf for that matter! This was one instance when home advantage and the support of a vociferous home crowd amounted to little. England improved on its past records, though; for the first time since it won the World Cup in 1966, it advanced to the finals of an international football competition. Its performance at Euro 2020 was unexpected; the favourites being the likes of World Champions France, defending champions Portugal, and, of course, the German machine. All these crashed out of the competition leaving little fancied countries like Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Czech Republic and Ukraine to cruise into the quarter finals. The surprise team of the tournament must be Denmark which, though it lost its star player, Christian Eriksen, in Denmark’s opening match of the tournament, which they eventually lost 0 – 1 to Finland, the Danes survived this monumental setback to advance all the way to the semi-final stage, eventually losing 1 – 2 to England.
England must have been the bookmakers’ favourites to win the competition after their unexpected sterling performance but the Italians ruined the party for them when it mattered most. The English saw the cup but failed to lift it. They are the “Soroye”; meaning, he who gets so close but loses out in the end. The match was keenly contested, going into extra time and, then, penalties. In my secondary school days, games decided on penalties were called games of luck or anybody’s game. Not any longer! Teams must prepare for penalties. Players are trained to take penalties. Goalkeepers are trained to foil penalties and a gaffer seeing that a game is drawing close towards penalties must make preparations, pulling out this player and throwing in that. If the reserve goalkeeper is a penalty specialist, this is the best time to throw him into the game.
All the same, nothing is certain and no one is sure when it comes to penalty-taking. The best players miss penalties. The most valuable player in a game can ruin it all, so to say, by missing vital penalties. Good players often run away from taking penalties, especially when the stakes are high. Coaches develop cold feet when it comes to choosing which player to take penalties, leaving it to the players themselves to decide. Once a team loses via penalties, expect the blame-game to begin in earnest! England are in the middle of that right now with three of their players missing penalties – interestingly, all of them men of colour, as they say. The intensity of the racial abuse visited on the three conveniently, even if unjustifiably (nay, wickedly!) side-steps their earlier positive contributions that made England advance that far in the competition.
Racism in sports may not be as vicious and violent today as it was in the days of Adolf Hitler when the Fuhrer refused to shake the hand of Black American athlete, Jesse Owens, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owen had won four gold medals – 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4 x 100 meter relay. Nevertheless, racism in sports is still alive and doing well. Racially abusing athletes – footballers especially – is rampant. The slap-on-the-wrist sanctions often slammed by the authorities are seen by many as not stringent enough to deter offenders. Losses such as the one borne by England last Sunday become more unbearable the nearer one gets at lifting the trophy. Teams that fell by the wayside earlier had since put the experience behind them. For many, preparation for the next edition might have begun in earnest. There is little wisdom in crying after spilled milk. Not so, though, for a team like England that thought the trophy was theirs for the plucking. That they nearly succeeded is cold comfort. As a little boy hunting birds, I knew that “nearly” did not kill a bird. Whether you shoot wide or a hair’s breadth away from the target makes no difference.
England’s senior players who failed to step forward to take the penalties, leaving the field wide open for rookies, will not escape censor. Same goes for the gaffer, Gareth Southgate, whether or not he made the choice of his team’s penalty takers; whether he abdicated that responsibility; whether he made the right choices; and whether his team trained and prepared enough for penalties. Did England become over-confident as they grew into the competition? Did they think they would overrun Italy? It is not only in England that many are still mourning the England loss. Nigerians, too, mourn! Nigeria’s affinity with England is legendary and historical, Britain being this country’s former colonial master. Between Britain and the United States of America (and lately, Canada), it is debatable which is the destination of choice for Nigerians fleeing this crisis-ravaged country.
The presence of our own person, Bukayo Saka, in the England team was also an attraction for many. Bukayo might have disappointed many football-loving Nigerians when he pledged his future to the Three Lions instead of the Super Eagles. He remains our own person all the same. And his overall performance during the competition gave many Nigerians cause for cheers – not jeers. The Premier League, arguably the best league in the world, has millions of Nigerian followers. So, it is understandable if many Nigerians were in England’s corner last Sunday. Nevertheless, I found other Nigerians who rooted for Italy and who shouted “serves them right” when England failed to lift the trophy!
Many hold Britain responsible for the quagmire that Nigerians find themselves in today. Britain unequally yoked southern Nigeria with northern Nigeria. Whereas it purported to leave behind a federation, it ensured that one region (the North) was in a position to dominate the other two regions (East and West). Not done, it manipulated the population figure in favour of the North in such a way that Nigeria became the only country in the world where the desert region was more thickly populated than the forest region. Still not done, the colonial masters stuffed the military largely with Northerners and, when departing, ensured the North took over the reins of power. Who handed over Nigeria to the Fulani? The British did – although with collaborators and willing tools in locals who did their bidding. Many of them were Southerners who, deliberately for pecuniary and selfish gains; who, out of sheer stupidity, and for their vaulting ambition, sold, like biblical Esau, their birthright for a mess of pottage.
If Britain meant well, it would have structured Nigeria the way Britain itself is structured. The United Kingdom consists of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. England and Wales participated as independent countries in the just-concluded Euro 2020. In the World Cup, the four countries that make up the UK also compete as independent countries – they have control over their local affairs unlike what operates in Nigeria where the Federal Government calls all the shots and emasculates the other parts of the country. The various countries that make up the UK have the right to secede. Scotland exercised that right in 2014, voting 55/45% to remain in the United Kingdom. Current opinion polls indicate that if another referendum is administered (one may be due in 2024), Scotland will most likely vote to exit the United Kingdom. Why was Nigeria not so structured by Britain?
The United Kingdom model can still be a feasible panacea to the Nigerian imbroglio. The other option is a complete breakup the Yugoslavia way (messy, bloody) or the “Velvet divorce” of Czechoslovakia (peaceful and orderly).