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By James Restall
Those are the words an old school friend used when he took to Facebook to describe a Saturday the inhabitants of these isles will never forget.
Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah transformed Stratford’s Olympic Stadium into a cauldron of euphoria as they added to the gold medals earned earlier that day in the Velodrome and on Eton Dorney lake.
But 160 miles away at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, a crop Britain’s young stars emulated the efforts of England teams of old by exiting the men’s football competition at the quarter final stage… on penalties.
A comparison of the two scenarios really is a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. During my lifetime, Britain has walked away from an Olympic games with a single gold medal to show for their efforts. Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave recorded our only triumph in Atlanta sixteen years ago – this summer Redgrave has interviewed four victorious crews.
There’s also been considerable improvement on the track. The feats of our Super Saturday athletes have already surpassed those in Sydney and equalled our record in Athens. Four years ago, Christine Ohuruogu’s 400m win was our only track and field gold.
The Queen will be struggling to keep on top of her New Year’s honours list as the number of likely MBE candidates just keeps on growing. Our team pursuit girls smashed their own world record in each of their last six races, while in the tennis Andy Murray banished the demons of his Wimbledon final by thrashing Roger Federer in straight sets.
Even as I type, Beth Tweddle becomes the first British female Olympic medallist in gymnastics. In the immortal words of John Motson, this is getting better and better and better.
But not, it seems, in the football. While the athletes bombed out in Atlanta, earlier in 1996 it was so near, and yet so far for the England national team. Aiming to end thirty years of hurt since their World Cup win, Terry Venables’s men were eliminated on penalties against Germany in the semi final.
As Baddiel and Skinner sang two years later, “It could have been all songs in the street, it was nearly complete, it was nearly so sweet”, yet England haven’t come as close in any form of the game since. After spot-kick defeats in quarter finals to Portugal (twice) and Italy in recent years, it was the passion and desire of a hungry Team GB side which gave British football fans their best hope for a semi final since Wembley in 96.
On paper it looked promising – a gutsy group stage performance had set up a knockout tie with South Korea. With a team including Welshmen Giggs, Bellamy and Ramsey playing in front of a Cardiff crowd, young Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge rediscovering his form and ‘keeper Jack Butland looking solid, surely Team GB could progress to a tasty tie against Brazil?
Despite levelling the match 1-1 with a penalty, Ramsey missed a crucial spot kick to win the tie in normal time. And although he scored in the shootout, Sturridge seemed to take inspiration from his club mate Ashley Cole’s penalty against Italy – his weak effort cost GB the match.
Manager Stuart Pearce said “experiences like that make you stronger” – the former Nottingham Forest player should know having missed then scored a penalty in crucial England knockout ties. Having experienced the pressure of a shootout
But the spectre of spot kicks aside, it’s clear that British football is lagging behind other disciplines. Have we paid the penalty for showcasing the world’s best players in the Premier League at the expense of nurturing young British talent? The experience of an international tournament (and a shootout defeat) will be beneficial to the development of our London 2012 under-23 players but even had they overcome South Korea, they would have been like lambs to the slaughter against Neymar and Pato.
Change is afoot at youth level to encourage more skilful play. Football at junior level will be nine-a-side which will hopefully create players with greater passing and ball skills. We have no problem in producing promising young players – Sturridge and Tom Cleverley have shown this both at London 2012 and last season. But the English style of play is no match for the total football of Brazil or Spain.
It will take more than an improvement over 12 yards for British footballers to reach the heights of our athletes.