St Etienne, 30 June 1998. England versus Argentina
I was one of the lucky few thousand who managed to get a ticket for the most exhilarating live experience of my time as a football fan.
At half-time, after 45 pulsating minutes of high drama, with the teams level at 2–2, I gasped for breath in the toilets and wondered if I'd last out the match. Then Beckham's impetuous retaliation changed the tempo of the game as England settled into defensive groove.
Sol Campbell and Tony Adams were magnificent in defence, both epitomising the spirit and determination which makes you feel good about being English. Campbell almost became a national hero when he headed what appeared to be the winning goal, only for it to be disallowed for a Shearer foul.
On to the penalty shoot-out. The England fans chant ‘Ince', to the drumbeat of the band as Paul Ince steps forward to take a vital kick with England ahead on penalties scored. His shot is saved, and what happens? The crowd picks up the chant of `Ince' just like before, despite the miss. You know the rest.
Later on, as I sit for an eternity on a bus full of Argentina fans for the journey back to town, I reflected on the way the English fans responded to Ince's miss, and remembered a game played 14 years earlier on the other side of the world.
Rio de Janeiro, 10 June 1984, Brazil versus England
I can picture the goal in my head as if I'm watching it on TV. He picks the ball up on the left wing about the half way line, and beats player after player after player, before finally arriving in the midst of the penalty area. At this point he almost loses control but stretches just enough to touch the ball past Roberto Costa into the net. Has anyone ever seen a better individual goal by an English international? And the opposition? Remember it was against Brazil, not San Marino.
Yet on the flight back to England, some English Nazis abused the player – John Barnes – and told him his goal didn't count. England in their eyes, only won 1 – 0. (So whose inch-perfect left-wing cross, completely deceiving the Brazilian keeper, did Mark Hateley head home for the `only' goal of the game? Guess).
The same sort of people who sent Cyrille Regis a letter with a bullet inside shortly before his full England debut. The same sorts who nowadays are posting death threats to black sportsmen and women and their white partners.
Some of them were in that St Etienne stadium two years ago and they'll be in Eindhoven and Charleroi this month. But they'll be a small minority, fearful of abusing their English black players as long as they're surrounded by decent, genuine England fans who don't want any truck with their creed of hate.
But they'll look for other targets – local black youths perhaps or anyone who looks remotely Turkish – and this is where the huge majority of English fans can assert themselves, just like they do every Saturday or Sunday back home. One reason why racism has decreased in English football in recent years has been the support that fans have given at their own clubs to the campaign to kick racism out of football, so that the racists in the crowd feel outnumbered, and out of step..
Another is the example set by the black professionals playing the game, from Clyde Best in the late 60's through Cunningham, Regis and Batson, to Crooks, Anderson and Barnes and onto members of our current squad – Campbell, Ince and Heskey.
We've begun to realise that the colour of our flag may only be red and white, but the colour of our team and our country has black running through it.
The racists won't go away overnight so non-racist fans need to stay strong and on guard. Just like when Paul Ince missed that penalty…