St. George's Cross Is Hard to Bear

Special to The Times

You latch yourself onto a national saga for three weeks and it might surprise you how it seeps into your system.

So Saturday, haunted Saturday, when Cristiano Ronaldo's penalty shot dented the net, when all of Portugal erupted into an enviable bacchanal, when England exited a World Cup it had anticipated almost desperately, you yourself might have ...

No. Not possible.

Let me explain: If you're here during a World Cup, you know how profoundly the English care, and you know how the care manifests itself in absurd devotion and hilarious criticisms of the coach, the players, maybe even the team masseur. However feckless England's offense at the moment, that hope hovers through the days, comes through the TV, tours the air in the pubs.

Maybe this could be the time, after 10 sighing quadrenniums across 40 sighing years.

So as the goalless England-Portugal quarterfinal careened toward penalty kicks, and as England's water supply seems to lack the element necessary for the successful taking of penalty kicks, and as the past howled with the 1990 World Cup against Germany (lost, penalty kicks) and Euro 1996 against Germany (lost, penalty kicks) and the 1998 World Cup against Argentina (lost, penalty kicks) and Euro 2004 against Portugal (lost, penalty kicks), there's still that law of averages.

Still, England's outnumbered 10 men played pretty valiantly.

Still, this could be the time, which meant that when it wasn't, you might find yourself ...

No. Not possible.

But here's how it went: Portuguese goalkeeper Ricardo blocked penalty kick after penalty kick, even touching the only one he didn't foil. Famous English faces such as Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard turned from failed kicks and contorted into the singular gloom that comes only from erring at something so nationally valued.

Ronaldo, who earns his riches in England for mercy's sake, converted, and tears started streaming through the flags of the St. George's cross painted upon the cheeks of little English boys in the stadium and in the country.

There'd be time for recriminations later, and that time would be Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday, not to mention next weekend and the next week, not to mention August, and September, and 2007 and 2008 and 2009.

We could hear later about how English star Wayne Rooney immaturely got tossed with a red card in 2006 the way star David Beckham immaturely got tossed with a red card in 1998. We could hear about how England never resembled a team bound to bring home a World Cup, about how its tepid, departing coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, never surpassed a major quarterfinal, about how naming only four strikers to the roster qualified as lunacy.

That stuff would probably even qualify as entertaining.

But for just the one moment, the camera trained on Rio Ferdinand and his tight dreadlocks, and the stalwart 27-year-old defender from London, who'd actually played beautifully, sobbed into his hands until he just about heaved.

Four more years to try again, Ferdinand sobbing on behalf of 50 million, John Terry red-eyed too, and I'm just telling you, I didn't plan this, or expect it, and I certainly tried to halt it quickly, and I'm not even English by birth, but it'd been a consuming three weeks leading up to Saturday, and I definitely, momentarily, got choked up.

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