My adventure of the Americas had lasted just short of a year and the reason for returning was upon us. The 2016 European Championship in France. Ironically, given the build-up, I was to start the competition in Hamburg, the current home of Sam, one of my best friends from England. Our group of four friends had travelled over to see him to take in the many delights of Hamburg, as well as to gather to watch the first few matches of the tournament including England vs Russia which was being played in Marseilles.
When we arrived at Sam’s, he let us in the door of the building and we could see him up on the 4th floor. The excitement of the tournament had started to hit home. And then came the most poetic and beautiful words an England fan could hear……
‘Na na naaaaaaaa, na na naaaaaaa, na na naaa, naa na naaaaa, na naaaaaaaaa.’
This continued all the way up the 4 storeys of echoey hallway. God knows what the neighbours thought, but who cares. By the time we reached the top we spent a good minute singing, hugging and jumping to the rest of the anthemic ‘Vindaloo’ in Sam’s living room. Nothing beats the optimism and excitement of a fresh football tournament.
Blessed with beautiful sunshine, we spent time checking out the local lakes, rivers and parks, whilst watching the early games and getting a gauge of the other teams. A few nights out on the Rieperbahn and in some alternative indie clubs and I was already falling in love with Hamburg. Now a nice England victory against the Russians would be a great way to finish the first leg of the trip.
Game day arrives. We try a couple of bars, before settling for a great little underground pub. It had the feel of a German pub, a very tight knit arrangement with everyone squeezed onto benches and sat with people they’d never met before. The majority seemed to be there to watch England, but I must say I felt for the guy whose every glance away from his meal towards the screen was met with a glare from his girlfriend who clearly wasn’t a football fan. Why guys do this to themselves I’ll never know.
‘God Save the Queen’ is sung loudly with pride around the pub, everyone is ready for the moment we’ve all been waiting for……except Chris.
‘I think he’s gone to get some herring.’
‘Fucking herring???? Only Chris!’
The game got underway and England were playing nice football – we were the favourites for this game. A convincing qualification where England won all 10 games had left us feeling quietly optimistic that Roy Hodgson’s men had made solid progress since the debacle in Brazil. There were reasons to be cheerful. Russia had more of a challenge qualifying, but did so ahead of the steady and reliable Swedes. We all knew that qualifying meant nothing really, but we were hopeful of victory and encouraged by a positive start. In the first half Wayne Rooney in particular shone and took the game to the Russians.
Despite the domination England needed a goal, and in the 73rd minute when Eric Dier stepped up for a free-kick – a man we’d never seen take one – we did not expect this to be the moment. How wrong we were. Dier whips the ball into the top corner leaving no chance for Akinfeev in the Russian goal, and pandemonium ensues both in this bar and across the length and breadth of England. Nothing was going to stop us now, as a cry of ‘We’ve won the Euros’ is heard amongst the cheers. Finally we had a thoroughly deserved lead and only 17 minutes to hold on.
But this is England, and more specifically, Roy Hodgson’s England, where things have never gone smoothly. His decision to take off Rooney straight after the goal would come back to haunt him – removing your best player is always a risk and this time those 13 minutes’ rest he got were not worth what it cost us. Two minutes into added time the better looking Berezutski brother, Vasili, popped up to head home past Joe Hart at the back post, breaking English hearts and sending the travelling Russian fans into raptures and rather a little more. There in the pub we drowned our sorrows, lamented our bad luck, and tried to take the positives of what was only seconds away from a thoroughly deserved, attack-minded win. Unbeknownst to us there was a much bigger story brewing in the stadium, which came to define this meeting much more than the events on the pitch.