Yesterday, we asked the sports section for their most memorable sports moment of 2018. Unsurprisingly, we got a lot of “yippee the Red Sox won the World Series,” some UConn basketball, even the rare Mets fan sighting.
I was reflecting on what my answer would be. For the most part, it hasn’t been a good sports year for me. And by that, I mean it’s been pretty terrible.
I watched the Yankees get knocked out of the postseason by Boston. The Giants—Saquon aside—have been an embarrassment. The Nets still can’t figure out how to close out games. And on the UConn side of things, the women’s basketball team fell short in a heart-wrenching semifinal, the men’s team got knocked out in the first round of the AAC tournament and the football team was, well, not really a football team.
But it wasn’t all bad. Back in February, which feels like it was approximately seven years ago, I watched the UConn men’s hockey team pull off a program-elevating comeback thriller over Boston University at the XL Center. Last month, I walked into Madison Square Garden for the first time and looked on as Dan Hurley and company upset Syracuse. The atmosphere of both of those games were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
However, as great as those were, it doesn’t compare to what my answer would really be: Taking in the World Cup from London.
I studied abroad over the summer in London, and the timing could not have been better. I was across the pond for the entirety of the World Cup, and enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.
With the United States not even qualifying for the tournament this year, I naturally became an avid England supporter—and I’m glad I did.
One thing you quickly learn about Brits and their national *football* team is that there’s an inescapable pessimism towards the squad. Even with a decent group draw and a solid core of talented youth, Londoners never expected their team to go very far. And to be fair, with it being now over 50 years since England’s last World Cup victory, no one in the world really did either.
And that’s what made England’s improbable run so special. With each win, the confidence grew, and that persistent doubt faded further and further away.
“Three Lions,” the 1996 song which momentarily became the de facto British national anthem this summer, really started off as a joke. The catchy refrain of “it’s coming home” was initially no more than a tongue in a cheek saying. But as the team looked stronger and stronger, those loud, drunken voices shouting the lyrics sounded more and more like they actually believed what they were saying.
England advanced from the group stage with a 2-1 record, losing to Belgium on a late goal. Then, on July 3, they took on Columbia in the Round of 16. Win, and advance to the quarterfinals. Lose, and it’s the end of the road.
As I had done for every other England match—and as many other matches as possible—I packed into a crowded pub to watch. The tension hung in the air for every second of the match. England’s Harry Kane, who quickly emerged as the hero for the Lions, gave them the lead in the 57th minute on a penalty. The place went nuts—no, the entire country went nuts—and then settled back and held their breath for the next 33 minutes.
In extra time, with England just seconds away from advancing, Columbia equalized. The pub was silent, but you could hear every Brit thinking the same thing: “same old, same old.”
But this time, it wasn’t. The match went to penalty kicks, and to the surprise of everyone in England, their team actually pulled it out. When the game-winning penalty hit the back of the net, I’ve never heard such an exclamation of sheer joy and pride in my life.
Spoiler alert: England didn’t win the World Cup. They did go on to dominate Sweden in the quarters, but fell to Croatia in the semis in heartbreaking fashion in extra time. That time, there was no celebration in the streets, just people quietly filing back to their London apartments.
Except, for the first time in years, it wasn’t disappointment in the air. It was pride, and a gratitude to their team for surprising the world, and uniting a fragmented country in the process.
I hope the USNMT qualifies for the 2022 World Cup, because we could certainly use some of that unity right now. There is nothing quite like the World Cup to bring countries—and the world—together, with sports at the center.
I’ll never forget that win over Columbia, and I would guess that many Englanders would agree. And though I had joined the Red Lion faithful just weeks earlier, when they were eventually eliminated, it felt as if my heart had been pulled out of my chest.
Football didn’t come home, but it certainly brought some much-needed hope home with it. Now bring on 2019, when hopefully Boston starts, y’know, not winning championships.