Updated: July 12, 2021 6:10:19 pm
England’s defeat in the final of Euro 2020 against Italy broke millions of hearts, with football ending up going (to) Rome instead of coming home. Tragic though the defeat was — and any defeat by a penalty shootout is Shakespearean by tragedy standards — it merely reflected a trend that has been a part of the English football team’s performances at major tournaments: the tendency to lose a match after being in the lead. No, this is not just a coincidence. So often has this been happening with English teams that prior to the Euro 2020 final, many fans were expressing the hope that England would not get an early lead. Well, England did. And England lost.
This is not the first time it has happened. And one suspects, unless some changes are made in strategy and approach, it will not be the last time either. For this “lead first and then lose” phenomenon has been dogging English football teams for more than half a century now. It seemed to have faded away in the eighties but has returned and has now seemingly booked in for bed and breakfast. No, England do not always lose crucial matches in which they lead, but the vast majority of their defeats in the knockout stages or in crucial tournament matches has been marked by their actually having led for a while before letting the advantage slip.
If that sounds hard to believe, consider the following:
World Cup 1970: The folly of taking Bobby off
Defending champions England were leading Germany 2-0 in the quarter-finals. And then Franz Beckenbauer pulled one back in the 70th minute for Germany to make it 2-1. In what remains perhaps the worst substitution ever made in football history, England coach Alf Ramsey took off Bobby Charlton to “save” him for the next match. The sting went out of England’s attack altogether, Beckenbauer suddenly was rampant and Germany won 3-2.
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Euro 1992: David put it on a Platt-er, but…
The defeat against Germany seemed a one-off, but then England entered their final group match at Euro 1992, needing a win against Sweden to make sure of getting through to the next round. David Platt got them off to a flying start, scoring in the fourth minute. And then it went horribly wrong as Sweden came back to win 2-1. England were knocked out.
Euro 1996: When it almost came home
This is the tournament that current England gaffer Gareth Southgate would love to forget. Riding on the crest of some fine performances and a wave of “It’s coming home”, the English team waded into the semi-finals of the tournament. And ran up against old rivals Germany. England got off to a perfect start with Shearer scoring in the third minute. Germany however equalised through Kuntz and held on to win via a tie-breaker, with Southgate missing a penalty.
World Cup 1998: Owen leads, Becks sees Red, and England bleed
After a reasonably good group performance — notwithstanding a surprising loss to Romania — England faced Argentina in what was becoming one of the most fascinating rivalries in modern football, courtesy of the Falklands War and Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal. Argentina got an early lead, but Alan Shearer quickly got England level. And a few minutes later, Michael Owen scored one of the greatest goals of World Cup history when he slalomed past a number of Argentine defenders to give England the lead. It all went pear-shaped after that. Not only did Argentina equalise at the stroke of half-time, but David Beckham got himself sent off for a silly lunge at Diego Simeone. England hung on bravely for the tie-breaker but lost there.
Euro 2000: Leading, losing again… and again
Grouped with Portugal, Germany, and Romania in one of the toughest groups of the tournament, England knew they had a tough job on their hands. And they literally let qualification slip through their fingers. They led 2-0 in their opening group game against Portugal but ended up losing 3-2. A 1-0 victory against Germany got the English back into contention for qualification, and when they were leading 2-1 against Romania at half-time with goals from Shearer and Owen, a place in the next round seemed in the bag. Alas, it slipped out again, with Romania running out 3-2 winners, courtesy of a last-minute penalty.
World Cup 2002: Brazil were ten, but perfect
This was perhaps the tournament where the “England cannot hang on to a lead” theory began to take shape. After qualifying rather efficiently for the quarter-finals against Brazil, England got off to a great start with Michael Owen giving them an early lead. Brazil equalised and then went ahead through a spectacular goal from Ronaldinho. Ronaldinho was then sent off in the 57th minute, but England could not come back into the game, leading to whispers that the team did not know how to close out crucial games.
Euro 2004: Another Owen lead squandered
Another quarter-final. Another quick lead through Michael Owen (who now must have been wondering if there was a hex on him) and another lead squandered. This time Portugal were the opponents. England played heroically (in spite of losing a rampant Rooney to an injury) and even equalised in extra time after going behind, but once again ended up losing in a tie-break.
Euro 2016: Cold feet against Icy opponents?
Just when many felt that England had learned to hang on to leads (or lose by not taking them, some cynics would counter), the team’s old weakness surfaced again. And this time it led to one of the greatest upsets in football history. Playing against an Iceland team that was just happy to be at the tournament and had surprised even itself by making it to the last-16 stage, England strode into the lead through a Wayne Rooney penalty in the fourth minute. Fans sat back, anticipating a goal-fest. They were not wrong two more goals were scored before the match was twenty minutes old. But both were, surprisingly, scored by Iceland. The minnows clung on to their 2-1 advantage for a famous victory.
World Cup 2018: Tripped by Croatia, in spite of Trippier
The Gareth Southgate era got off to a flying start in the 2018 World Cup, with the team qualifying easily from its group. The “lead and lose” spectre surfaced briefly during its match against Colombia in the Round of 16 when Colombia equalised late to cancel out Harry Kane’s opener, but this time England hung on to win in a tie-breaker. A 2-0 win over Sweden in the quarter-finals, set up a semi-final against Croatia. And the curse struck again. Kieran Trippier put England up in the fifth minute and the team seemed good value for the lead, until Croatia surged back later in the match, equalising in normal time and then winning in extra time. While the English team’s performance was generally praised, there was some concern at how the team had once again let a lead slip in a crucial match…
Euro 2020: Gareth gets pipped at the Gate
England made the final of a major tournament for the first time in 55 years. And indeed went in as firm favourites against an Italian side many saw as being a little too old. In front of a noisy Wembley crowd, England got off to the perfect start. In front of a frenzied crowd, Luke Shaw scored in the second minute to give England the lead. The cup was coming home, it seemed, but then Rome had other ideas. The old curse had struck again. England had led. And lost yet again.
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