As the first big Christmas shopping Saturday unfolded yesterday, millions of English people nevertheless turned their thoughts to events in the Holy Land. No, not the imminent 2007th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ but the evening's European Championship qualifying match between Israel and Russia, the outcome of which bore heavily on England's fate in next year's tournament. It was, quite simply, the most important game of football that the England team had not played in.
Nightmares of previous English exits from international qualifying competitions resurfaced, with images of an executioner's axe swinging through the sky – remember Poland humiliatingly forcing a draw at Wembley in 1973 to eliminate England from the following year's World Cup and lose Sir Alf Ramsey his job?
Or what about the Dutch knocking us out of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup in America, when Ronald Koeman, who should have been sent off for a foul on David Platt but wasn't, went on to score the winning goal and lose Graham Taylor his job? (Thank you, Holland.)
These were mercifully swift. The current fixture arrangements have obliged England and the nation to share a lingering, impotent agony, facing sudden death or glorious salvation, which cannot be confirmed either way until next Wednesday's game against Croatia. This was made worse by last Friday night's useless friendly in Vienna against Austria, in which a pyrrhic victory was achieved – a 1-0 win but the loss of top striker Michael Owen to a thigh strain.
What had England been doing in snowy Vienna anyway, playing in the stadium where the final of the tournament they may yet not make will be played next summer? Hubris, a Greek word for overweening pride, but also very much an English sporting affliction, can be the only explanation.
Owen's injury meant that he joined fellow strikers Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey, and defenders John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, in not being available for the game at Wembley against Croatia where the finality of qualification, or exclusion, will be confirmed.
Now "Crouchy" and "Defoey", neither of whom can get a game for their clubs, will lead the attack. It could be improbably heroic or it could be futile and embarrassing. With the Russians playing Andorra, more famed for skiing and goat-herding than football, it's not hard to guess which way the bookies are thinking.
As ever when England faces a moment of crisis beyond its control, a colonial instinct kicked in, with the tabloids and the sports programmes taking a keen interest in all matters Israeli, as if seeking to build on bonds that might sway their team into "doing us a favour", a phrase that had been filling column acres.
Hadn't Esther and Abi Ofarim topped our charts in 1968 with "Cinderella Rockefella"? The Jewish Chronicle published football chants such as "Come on Israel!" in Hebrew for the benefit of England fans.
Unfortunately, the tabloids had also become aware of the fact that one million Russian-speaking Jews now lived in Israel, émigrés from the former Soviet Union. There was also Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who had reportedly offered each Russian player a £100,000 bonus for qualifying – the preposterous conspiracy theories blossomed.
Such dark thoughts shouldn't have been entertained by decent English fans. They knew in their hearts that England, having drawn against Macedonia and Israel, and having lost in Croatia and Russia, were more than capable of failing to qualify under their own steam. But, hey – "Come on Andorra!"Reuse content