Full disclosure on this Fourth-of-July weekend: I am the son of an Englishman.
When I was in the third grade, the social studies curriculum included quite a long time spent examining the American Revolution. Cases of tea in the Harbor! One if by land, two if by sea! Whites of their eyes! Give me liberty or give me death! Second of July [look it up]! All that stuff.
(Living in Massachusetts as I do, that period of history is ever-present in my everyday life. School field trips to the battlefields of Lexington and Concord are just a short bus ride away. There’s a 1760s-vintage stone marker around the corner from the house of my youth into which “Boston → 18 miles” is carved, and I imagine fellas on horseback wearing tri-cornered hats looking at the marker, then to the east, and saying, “yep … we can make it by lunchtime.” And the church wherein I do my church-musician-gigging is located in the area of town known as the Historic District … meaning if you want to build anything bigger than a mailbox, it darn well better look like something that was built by those colonial Americans, or no construction permits for you!)
So I was paying attention in class. The California Gold Rush? Lewis and Clark? Even most of the Civil War? Harder to envision. The Boston Massacre? Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride? The Battle of Bunker Hill? We pass that stuff all the time on the way to the mall.
But, unlike my classmates, I was considering that there are two sides to every conflict, and that during the American Revolution, those guys in red coats were human beings, weren’t they?
Thanks, I suspect, to the presence of a English father in my life, I thought often of the British soldiers. Sent far from home, to try to convince the expatriates to calm the heck down … possibly thinking it was the right thing to do, preserve the Empire and all that … and they had to carry out warfare while wearing outfits that kinda didn’t camouflage them all that well.
I didn’t talk about it too loudly, of course. But it may have been among my first moments dealing with empathy.
Let me be clear: my dad moved to the US from England’s West Midlands (via Scotland and Canada) as he followed a trail of jobs that led to a chemical engineering career. I don’t think he looked at America the way we Americans romantically imagine immigrants looking at it. I doubt he was murmuring “give me your tired, your poor” as he crossed the border … rather, I bet he was muttering, “give me your map of New Jersey and do you even do tea?” He never relinquished his English-ness and never apologized for it.
That said, he was plenty knowledgeable about, and happy with, this country. I suspect that knew and appreciated more about the sport of baseball than almost any of his countrymen. His accent faked out a lot of unsuspecting ugly Americans, in this regard.
So, with this example of English-ness in my life, I’ve always harbored great fondness for the land of my father’s birth. Rule Britannia! Monty Python! Gustav Holst! (Not an especially UK name, but he was an English citizen.) The stereotypical English reputation for gentility and stiff-upper-lip is both somewhat accurate and often overblown. As adorable as “Wallace and Gromit” are, John Cleese and the “Blackadder” series are only two examples of the English people’s unmatched facility for cruel humor. As stately and majestic as “Land of Hope and Glory” is, well … England also cultivated the early development of punk rock, and that’s not exactly the soundtrack of high tea.
“Stiff-upper-lip” is not a phrase often used to describe any sports fandom, English or otherwise – what my dad used to call “English football” surely included. (He called American football “heaps of men”.) Soccer hooliganism was rather a problem in the 1980s, but one sportswriter in particular has chronicled the lengths to which England has gone in the intervening time to put a damper on it. English football fans are passionate, and most inter-club rivalries tend to dwarf all but the most rabid of their American counterparts (Yankees/Red Sox … Auburn/Alabama … Coke/Pepsi …), but at least there’s not so much rioting lately.
But there is a distinct tradition in England of holding people’s feet to the fire, and not being shy about it. If a professional English athlete – particularly one who is representing their country – fails to carry out their patriotical athlete duties, they become a verbal target in the pub and/or the press. If they let down their country … the existence of which clearly hinges on their ability to swing a club or racket, or to boot a ball, or to run fast, or to fling an oddly-shaped object … well, perspective is set aside and …
Well, good luck to ya.
And so it was, earlier this week, following a Women’s World Cup soccer semifinal match between Japan and England, that a set of feet had the chance to be held to said fire – except that it didn’t happen. Almost at all.
The match was tied at one goal each. The second half had expired, but play continued in what soccer enthusiasts call “added time”. That’s a few minutes of overtime tacked directly onto the end of a match at the discretion of the referee, based upon how much second-half time had previously been wasted watching players roll around in fake agony on the ground (or similar delays). Important to play 45 genuine minutes of actual soccer per half.
In the second added minute, a Japanese midfielder put a pass forward toward the English goal. To keep a Japanese striker (I’m sorry, but “striker” is a terrific term for a member of the offense!) from getting to the ball and probably drilling it past the goalkeeper for the winning goal, one English defender did catch up to the striker and the ball, and flicked a foot at the ball in order to deflect it away from the goal.
A successful kick of the ball, yes … but oh, the direction.
Usually in nightmares, the event that you can’t do anything about takes place in slow-motion. This was a high-speed chase with a drag-racing fireball of an ending. The ball soared, not away from the goal, but a little bit high and a whole lot toward the net. It glanced off the underside of the crossbar, down, and over the goal line by eighteen inches or so. It took no time at all for the English world to come crashing down.
All the blue-clad Japanese players leapt.
None of the white-clad English did.
Some of them sank to their knees; some collapsed to the ground. Some stood, looking for all the world like they’d been hit in the head with one of those animated Monty Python 40-ton weights. It was not untrue.
The term “own goal” is so very inadequate as a descriptive device.
The Women’s World Cup happens only every four years, and no matter how good a player you are, every Cup tournament you get to play in … might be your last. You might not be chosen for the national team next time around; or an injury might dash your hopes.
Even if you’re a perennial (quadrennial?) fixture on your country’s squad, the World Cup is your sport’s Big Moment. The men’s side of the Cup has been the stuff of internationally-televised legend for decades. More recently, the women’s tournament has begun to rise to that level. So a Cup semifinal is a big, big deal. If you’re in it, you want to do well. You want to win. You don’t want to lose, clearly.
You don’t want to screw up. You, yourself, personally.
Here in the US, we have athlete names which need only be whispered, to communicate the concept of “goat” … the guy who let the ball go through his legs as the winning run scored, threw the interception with time expiring, missed the two-foot putt on 18, double-faulted on match point. (We even have guys who hit the winning home run, whose names bring to mind not so much the home run but the pitcher who threw the hanging curveball, or the manager who kept him in the game for just one more batter. We’re amazingly creative that way.)
The defender’s name was Laura Bassett, and until that moment, she was recognized as one of English soccer’s heroic women. Her England team, nicknamed the “Lionesses”, reached the Women’s World Cup semifinal for the first time ever, this year. She had taken a nasty elbow to the face, near her eye, during an early-round match against France, and kept on playing regardless.
Bassett became a professional soccer player in England’s FA Women’s Premier League Northern Division at the age of fourteen. She has been a member of the English women’s national team for a dozen years. She has been the object of WPL bidding wars. In short: no slouch, she.
Because our world has an Internet in it, there were Internet trolls. Following that heart-breaker of a match, nasty Twitter messages immediately popped up, directed at Bassett (likely by people who wouldn’t think of saying these things to her face, as this is the way of the Web). They contained a great variety of snark, from knee-jerk amateur soccer analysts’ instant dismissal of her skills (“Scoring an own goal to ruin the country’s hopes is not quality. @laurabassett6 should be ashamed and should retire”) to unfunny jokes (“Congratulations to Laura Bassett who was officially voted Scotland’s favourite footballer today”). This is, again, very sadly, to be expected.
But this moment seemed to generate far more online support than your average professional athletic disaster. Numerous British media outlets have reported on the great wave of sympathy that has arisen.
Of course, fellow pro footballers checked in immediately on Twitter. They understood, better than anyone.
Former England captain Casey Stoney wrote, “If anyone did not deserve that today it was @laurabassett6 she is the most honest, hard working, professional who is an amazing team mate!!!” Former Premier League player Gary Lineker wrote, “What a dreadful way to lose! Poor, poor Laura Bassett.” Current WPL player Kelly Smith wrote, “@laurabassett6 Hold your head up high girl. You have lead by example and been IMMENSE all tournament. We <3 you.” Current England goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain (into whose net the errant clear had sailed) wrote, “Football can be so so cruel. Absolutely gutted but so proud to be a part of this team.”
Most affectingly, for me, though, were a pack of Twitter messages that made me think perhaps the United Kingdom in general had its priorities uncommonly straight, in this case:
A young English musician wrote, “@laurabassett6 you played excellently and did your country proud. Literally inspired a nation. Nothing to be ashamed of from that performance” and a young man from somewhere in the British Isles wrote, “@laurabassett6 don’t think for a second that there is a single person who isn’t proud of and inspired by you, chin up! #ProudOfBassett”
One Premier League supporter wrote, “@laurabassett6 We’re all proud of you Laura. Onward and upward. That cup[‘]s got your name on it.” Another English football fan with the curious Twitter account name “Invalid Parking” wrote, revealingly, “@laurabassett6 Head up, **it happens. :( Can’t blame yourself, fantastic effort from all of you! (Previously only men’s football fan)!” … and an RAF veteran living in Aberdeen wrote, “#proudofbassett and that’s from Scotland! You should all be proud and look forward not back.”
And it didn’t come from the UK, but it came from Canada, which is a Commonwealth nation, so perhaps it’ll still count: arguably my favorite Tweet on this topic, from a Toronto sportswriter called Eric Koreen.
Meanwhile, although England lost in the aptly-named knockout stage, there’s still work to be done. In American sports, we don’t muck around with silly things like consolation games, as there’s no consolation to be had after losing. But in this tournament, there’s still third place to be decided. To advance to the Cup final, the US women had to outdo Germany, and did. So, for the Lionesses, Deutschland awaits. Not a small mountain to climb, and especially for a side that just had their hearts broken in little pieces just this past Wednesday.
If the universe is a fair place … and we know all about that big ol’ “if”, but go with me anyway … if there’s any kind of justice in the world, I will expect my Twitter feed to esssplode tomorrow afternoon, around 4 o’clock Eastern time, on the very Fourth of July. It’ll happen when a beautiful entry pass from an English defender called Laura Bassett, in the midfield, will skitter through the German defense during the 89th minute, and a marauding England striker will bury it in the back of the net for the only goal of the third-place match. #ProudOfBassett, indeed.
If not, though … if England fall to Germany … I still have faith that England’s supporters back home will, in their unique way, come through again.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’