As a young kid, watching football held no interest to me whatsoever. I’d much rather be out, kicking the thing, than watching a stale and dull match on the box. It was jumpers for goalposts, twenty-four aside, kick and chase punts, until it was too dark to make out the footy. And I loved it. Chelsea were always my team but I looked out for the results and pretended to be Kerry Dixon more than anything else. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, all the people going to matches on a Saturday or gathering to scream at the telly. All that changed with the Italia World Cup.
I had shown a bit interest in the tournament but it wasn’t until that famous semi-final with the Germans that I finally understood the excitement of watching a match. The whole country had seemed to come to a standstill, a nation’s hopes pinned on eleven players. There were incidents galore with Gazza’s tears, Linkers sublime finish, and, to cap it all, the drama of penalties. I’d never seen anything like it, the excitement, the hope and, ultimately, the disappointment. Pure emotion. It was the highs and lows of that shoot-out that made me want to follow watching the beautiful game for the rest of my life.
I avidly watched the ’94 tournament, deprived of England, I could be impartial and follow the players who showed skill and invention, the likes of Hagi and Stoichkov. The two best teams reached the final. Brazil and Italy promised to be a great clash between the tournaments most exciting players, Roberto Baggio and Romario. In the end, it was nothing of the sort. Nil nil and the hero turned out to be the centre half Franco Baresi, who showed a master class of sublime defending. He had been man of the match by a mile and after 120 minutes he had to step up to take a penalty. It was Baggio whose image was sent around the world but I’ll never forget feeling sorry for one the game’s greatest defenders unjustly missing a pen. It was an unfortunately familiar story last week.
The England penalty shootouts of ’96 and ’98 were tough to take. Both teams had the genuine potential to win the tournament, if only they could have overcame that hurdle we might have went on to be winners. Those ones hurt but the following penalty disasters of the national team have had a sorry inevitability about them. It’s almost expected we lose them now. Chelsea, almost in parallel with England, has enjoyed little shootout success. In recent seasons we’ve lost a Charity Shield and got knocked out the Carling Cup by Charlton. Nothing too bad and nothing too depressing. But of all of the memories down the years last Wednesday’s shoot-out left me with the worst feeling of any, ever. One kick away from glory, that infamous slip and it was gone. After everything, such a long, hard season, it all came down to a second of bad luck. I couldn’t sleep that night just reliving the moment in my mind. However, as it’s been said by the other features here, we all know none of us were feeling as bad as JT. Chelsea through and through he knows what it would mean to us fans to left that cup. The man was distraught, with no need to be and no need to apologise. It was a good pen, if he didn’t slip, it was in, but then that’s the most heartbreaking thing.
Contrast that to Anelka. A striker with a fierce shot he was nowhere to be seen when more tired players were stepping forward to take a penalty. He ended up as the seventh person to take a kick. It was poorly taken at a comfortable height. I know he hasn’t been at the club long but the difference between his and JT’s reaction told a story. Nicolas almost shrugged, as if it was one of those things. He either doesn’t understand what it means to the club, the fans, the owner or he doesn’t care enough. Either way I wasn’t impressed. If he’s still at this club next season he needs to prove he deserves to be and win over the fans all over again. A total of two goals from twelve starts, most in his favoured forward position, isn’t good enough to be fair. It seemed odd that Sheva, with a far superior goals per game ratio this season, was left kicking his heels on the bench in Moscow. I might be seeking someone to blame and being harsh on Anelka but it seemed the one sour note on what was a great performance and a great game. We can’t have asked for any more effort from the players this season, they’ve done everything but win the trophy their play, determination and character deserved.
It couldn’t have been a more turbulent season and yet we were fractions away from winning three trophies. If the current Man Utd side is supposedly the greatest team Fergie has ever managed then were does that leave Chelsea, level with them until the final kick, both in league and the European final? We may be down at the minute but make no mistake this side will come back stronger and I’m convinced next season will see us back at the top. After Milan suffered heartbreak in Istanbul they came back and rightfully claimed the European Cup against Liverpool two years later. When Bayern were so unlucky at the Nou Camp in ’99 they returned to lift the trophy against Valencia in 2001. Chelsea will back in that European Final again and next time JT will be proudly picking up that trophy. Next time it’ll be us fans who will be the ones crying!
Keep the blue flag flying high.