“No one believed in us at the start,” Steven Gerrard said morosely after England beat Ukraine 1-0. Since he mentions it, some of us still don’t believe that England will win this tournament, or that they deserve to, although we’ve already seen that virtue and quality are not always rewarded. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” says Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, speaking of her own unpublished novel. “That is what Fiction means.” But that is not always what soccer means.
No neutral—or even honest Englishman—could have watched that game without cheering the plucky Little Russians (I’m trying to revive the traditional Russian name for Ukraine, as in Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony, though it doesn’t seem to be catching on in Donetsk). Wayne Rooney returned from a well-merited suspension to miss one easy goal and then head, or nod, another in when the Ukrainian goalkeeper fumbled the ball. But really, Rooney is so profoundly obnoxious as a person that he has to play better than that to be tolerated.
Otherwise England were clearly outplayed for most of the match, and Ukraine suffered another should-have-been goal which the clownish officials failed to see as it crossed the line. As Gerrard so truly said, “you need a bit of luck along the way.” England have got this far more by luck than skill, and they can’t ride their luck much longer.
What of the other final group games? After my brutal strictures, Cristiano Ronaldo actually managed to score at last for Portugal, indeed two goals, neither difficult. Perhaps he reads “The Goal.” Portugal should now beat the Czechs, although there have been plenty of surprises already. No surprise at the collapse of Ireland. For some reason their fans, scores of thousands of them, have been praised for their fortitude and good cheer, as they chant that lugubrious dirge “The Fields of Athenry” while wearing ridiculous huge green hats. I’d have thought that the Baltic coast was a long way to go just to look like what a Dubliner would call a complete ejit.
At any rate, Ireland were easy target practice for Spain, who seem to be in more of a groove as they face France on Sunday. Nor should Germany have much trouble against Greece, a game whose political-economic overtones at present don’t need spelling out. Maybe Mario Gómez will get a touch of the ball, which is all he needs. The most curious stat of the Euros to date is this: in all matches, Gómez has so far had possession of the ball for a total of eight seconds, and that was enough for him to score two goals. What will he do when he has the ball for 80 seconds?