England World Cup heartbreak: Have they upset football gods?

Hands of God, penalty shoot-out traumas, untimely red cards, and now a last-minute own goal. English teams - male or female - seem to specialise in going out of World Cups in the cruellest of fashions. Mere coincidence? A national sporting trait? Or are the footballing gods against them? Ben Dirs imagines what a higher authority makes of it all…


A man and a woman wearing England shirts are sitting on a sofa, head in hands. They are surrounded by empty beer bottles and they have been crying. A TV is showing Laura Bassett's injury-time own goal against Japan on loop. Suddenly, the man drops to his knees and raises his hands to the heavens.

MAN: Oh, footballing gods, what have we done to offend you so?! You gift Maradona his handball in 1986, magic the ball into a balloon before Chris Waddle's penalty in 1990, turn Gazza into a statue against Germany in 1996 - and always make Bryan Robson sick! And now our women, too! You are clearly a vengeful god who hates the English! But why?! Explain yourself!

Suddenly, the room starts shaking, things fall from shelves and the man and woman hug each other in fear. A figure wearing a full Germany strip, circa 1996, strides out of the TV. He looks a lot like Andreas Moller.

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World Cup moments: The 'Hand of God'

GOD OF FOOTBALL: Enough! How you English love to wallow in righteous victimhood! And what thin ground you English stand on! Anyone would think you had never laid eyes on Chrissy Waddle's hair!

WOMAN: All of this hate, all of this bad luck - it's because of Waddle's hair?

GOD OF FOOTBALL: Silence! I was joking about Chrissy Waddle's hair - if luck in football was all down to hair, Germany would not have qualified for a single major tournament in the modern era. But you English, you prefer to believe your footballing failures are mystical rather than prosaic, and so I tossed you Chrissy Waddle's hair to cling to. And so you clung to it, rather than face the truth.

MAN: What is the truth?

GOD OF FOOTBALL: The truth is that you just aren't very good at football. And you are arrogant. When you lose, it suits you to believe that always you have been somehow cheated - that we gods have conspired against you - but you happily forget about all that luck that we have gifted you through the years.

WOMAN: But we don't feel lucky right now, oh god…

GOD OF FOOTBALL: Silence! You think the Belgians felt lucky at the World Cup in 1990, when you defeated them in the second round? All you English remember is David Platt's extra-time winner - but Belgium hit the woodwork three times! You stole the game from Belgium that day!

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World Cup moments: Platt's sublime volley

MAN: But what about the semi-final against West Germany? We surely deserved to win that one?

GOD OF FOOTBALL: Maybe. But you didn't. Because you are terrible at taking penalties. Because you and your media prefer to think of penalties as some "insane lottery" instead of an integral part of tournament football…

… how we laughed at Glenn Hoddle when he admitted you English had not practised penalties before the 1998 World Cup - and we laughed louder when you were knocked out on penalties by Argentina! We laughed and laughed and laughed that day - only when John Terry fell over taking that penalty in the Champions League final in 2008 did we laugh longer and louder…

WOMAN: But that game would never have gone to penalties if David Beckham hadn't been sent off...

GOD OF FOOTBALL: Beckham was sent off because he was a naive young fool! Just as Wayne Rooney was a naive young fool when he got sent off against Portugal at the 2006 World Cup!

Neither man got sent off because of luck or because the men they kicked appeared to have been gored by a bull - they got sent off because they failed to adhere to the rules of modern football!

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England's Wayne Rooney receives a red card v Portugal in 2006 World Cup

MAN (whimsically): We did win a penalty shootout once…

GOD OF FOOTBALL: Yes! Against Spain at Euro '96! I remember it well, they were by far the better team in normal time. But just as you robbed the Belgians at Italia '90, so you robbed the Spanish. I used to spend a lot of time in Spanish living rooms, before they got good and started winning things…

The man and woman look at each other, still somewhat bewildered.

GOD OF FOOTBALL: You see, the Spanish used to think the footballing gods had it in for them, too. They would drop to their knees, raise their hands to the heavens and cry: "Oh, footballing gods, what have we done to offend you so?!" And so I visited them, as I have visited you, and I told them:

"Go forth and teach your children how to play football well. Build youth academies, teach coaches how to coach, create a common identity, from cradle to World Cup. Do so, and you will flourish." And so Spain have flourished. And because now their fans have less faith in the mystical, they no longer invoke me.

WOMAN: But why haven't our footballing leaders on earth done the same as Spain?

GOD OF FOOTBALL: Because you English are away with the fairies! When you lose it is too often blamed on bad luck - and you all start crying! Always with the boo-hooing! When you scrape past Belgium or Cameroon or Spain, you are the greatest team in the world! How you love to venerate minor victories!

I remember too well the open-top bus parade after Italia '90, with Gazza and his comedy breasts! When your women beat Canada in the quarter-finals, some of our older gods were awoken. They were bewildered, because the World Cup final was a week and a half away but it sounded like England had already won it! Out came the 'we showed you alls' and the bold predictions…

England women
England lost their final World Cup warm-up game to Canada 1-0 but went on to beat them in the quarter finals

WOMAN: But our girls did great at the World Cup!

GOD OF FOOTBALL: Yes. They did OK. But why were they such underdogs to begin with? Why was it seen as such a glorious victory to reach the last four? Because your women have not - as yet - learned the lessons of your men…

The God of Football kneels before the man and woman and embraces them.

GOD OF FOOTBALL: You know who the lucky teams are? The teams the gods do not conspire against? The teams the gods do not make cry? The best teams. The teams that beat other good teams prosaically. The teams which are created through superior teaching and do not rely on mysticism to win or lose. Put it this way - I don't spend much time in German living rooms…

… teach your young girls well and they, when they become women, will be spared the devastation of your men - and all of their long-suffering fans. For your women, it is early days, so they bear fewer scars than your men. And, women's football being still young, they are in a position to steal a march on most of their opposition.

And now I must go. The God of Football Future was to have paid you a visit, to let you know whether you English ever learned your lessons, but the editor limited this to 1000 words…

The God of Football gets to his feet and walks towards the TV.

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Great World Cup moments: Hurst hits the bar

MAN (whispered): Just one last thing - Geoff Hurst's goal in 1966, was it over the line?

GOD OF FOOTBALL: Have you seen what kit I'm wearing? Of course it wasn't. But forget about it - you were the better team that day. Farewell…

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