Gentlemen, start your calculators.Posted: June 17, 2012
By ten o’clock this evening, unless nature decides again that it hates football and unleashes more bolts of lightning across the Ukrainian skies, we will know whether or not the Netherlands have achieved the impossible. No team has ever qualified from the group stages of a major tournament having lost their first two matches and although statistically the chances of the Oranje becoming the first are slim, the results that are required to satisfy this outcome are not entirely outside the realms of possibility. All that is required to see Holland through is a two-goal victory over Portugal in Kharkiv, while we must hope that Denmark lose to Germany in Lviv.
Regardless of the outcome this evening, the likelihood is that I will not be posting for a few days, due to my grandfather’s funeral taking place in Rotherham at the beginning of next week. Francis Marsden Thompson, the man responsible for not only my middle name but the majority of the genetics for which I am grateful, was born on 3rd June 1932 in South Yorkshire. After joining the Royal Navy at the age of sixteen, Frank was stationed in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull for his naval training, after which he was assigned to the HMS Reclaim, the first deep sea diving salvage vessel of it’s kind equipped with sonar, underwater cameras and echosound apparatus. After many years service my grandfather was discharged with injuries sustained during service that would prevent him from working for the majority of his life, however it did not stop him playing football in the back garden with me and my older brother, a goalkeeper of intimidating presence and lightning reactions; I would look up as I took a first touch and Russell would be on his goal line, when I would glance upwards again a fraction of a second later to strike the ball he would be on top of me. A passionate fan of the game although never one team in particular (he was far too open-minded for that), Frank would stand at the end of the garden path, flicking the ball up with his slippers and volleying it inch-perfectly into a space equidistant from myself and Russell, at which point we would charge at each other with reckless abandon and often disastrous results.
It is Frank that I have to thank for the natural sense of balance, spatial awareness and pace over ten yards that have allowed me to enjoy playing this game over the years, as well as many other traits that I associate with the game such as my preference for a whisky and an overly-optimistic, poorly-planned approach to betting. (I once gave him a lift to the bookies in the car; upon our arrival he got out and put a twenty pound note on the seat. “Half of my winnings” he said. Upon his arrival back at my parents’ house later on, by which point the twenty pounds was of course long gone, I asked him how he had got on. I didn’t catch the sentence that he grumbled as he walked off to set himself down in front of the fire, but it didn’t sound like the tone of victory.) It is also because of my grandad that I developed such a love for this game as a spectator and supporter, and although he was of course a fierce patriot, his compassion and rational intelligence also made him the only member of my family that supported my treacherous decision to follow the Netherlands, as he did when my uncle Frank, also named after his father, decided to follow Holland in the late eighties. Maybe it is because, like me he saw something in the mentality of that footballing nation that he recognised in himself, in their deliberate recklessness and carefree perfectionism; the last thing he ever said to me was “Go and put a bet on for me” and as I left his bedroom “We don’t go either way us, do we?” It would appear that neither do the Oranje.
Although it might seem a little trite to put the passing of my grandfather on May 31st alongside the subject of the Oranje, I am not trying to say that life is as trivial as football, nor am I saying that football is as important as matters such as life and death. It is simply that the ability to get carried with those things that capture my imagination and the tendency to obsess about minor details is a characteristic that he has handed down to me, and in continuing to get overly excited about these things that others consider trivial I hope that he will remain with us in some small way. Every person hopes that when they are gone they will not be forgotten, yet the first thing that most people do when somebody leaves us is cease to talk about them in the trivial contexts within which we often communicate. I refuse to do that, as he would have done. He loved that myself and a bunch of friends had decided to reject convention in favour of Totaalvoetbal and although I recognise that personal circumstances and states of mind have no bearing on the outcome of a football match it will be quite fitting if Holland qualify this evening, the unlikeliest of comeback stories that I know Frank would have enjoyed.
If the Oranje beat the Portuguese in Kharkiv tonight by two clear goals and Germany defeat the Danes in Lviv, they will qualify to play the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 and it is the Czechs themselves, along with Greece, that provide our greatest inspiration. In an unbelievable climax to Group A last night, the Czechs and Greeks respectively defeated co-hosts Poland and group leaders Russia to seal the unlikeliest of progressions. And while such a surprising culmination to a group is improbable in two consecutive evenings, if there is one thing we have all learned about the Ukraine this week it is that lightning can strike twice.