IT remains to be seen if Gareth Southgate toasts a World Cup win against Tunisia with something stronger than coke and orange this evening – should England emerge victorious against the North Africans in Volgograd.
Now in the manager’s chair for his country as opposed to being out in the field, Southgate and his team-mates famously downed a few soft drinks to celebrate success in his previous World Cup appointment against Tunisia in Marseille – and despite their lack of alcoholic content, they will have tasted like nectar.
Some two decades on and Southgate – free from playing responsibilities these days – might just indulge in a post-match beverage of a bottle of locally-crafted beer back in the team hotel late on omn Monday night, should England prevail again. It will taste just as sweet.
Southgate’s previous experience of facing the Eagles of Carthage in a World Cup group opener is a special one. Even if the backdrop to England’s 2-0 win over Tunisia in the sweltering port city of Marseille on Monday, June 15, 1998 was belligerent, rancourous and depressingly familiar.
Violence dominated the build-up to England’s first game at in 1998 at the Velodrome Stadium with the scenes branded as a ‘total disgrace’ by then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
After some isolated trouble on the Saturday night, 400 England ‘fans’ were involved in pitched battles with Tunisian fans, local youths and police during seven hours of heinous violence by the Mediterranean the following day, which left 32 people injured.
The wail of police sirens, constant hail of bottles and missiles and the pall of tear gas sullied the Vieux Port area of Marseille and made it a battleground.
Sadly, the pre-tournament fears that staging an England fixture in a fractious, socially divided city with such a high population of North Africans and rife with socio-economic problems would constitute a serious risk were all realised.
The dark, ugly scenes of hooliganism, which further dented England’s reputation abroad, dominated the pre-match build-up ahead of a lunch-time kick-off in the hot sun.
There had been a bristling air of tension across the city. Around 40,000 England supporters amassed at L’OM’s famous 60,000-capacity Stade Velodrome, but, thankfully, by the final whistle, a 2-0 victory and a genuine belief that Glenn Hoddle’s side could go far in the tournament switched the talk refreshingly back to the football.
It was one of the best days of my life, playing my first game in the World Cup finals with England. It was an incredible atmosphere down there.Gareth Southgate
Lining up for England in his first World Cup start, Southgate’s mood was one of exhilaration at its conclusion. It was a feeling far removed from his previous experience of tournament football, which ended in infamy when he missed the fateful penalty in the nation’s cruel shootout loss to Germany in the semi-final of Euro ’96.
That game in Marseille was to prove Southgate’s one and only start at a World Cup finals. So it was just as well he savoured it.
Reflecting on that occasion, his 26th cap for his country, Southgate said: “We celebrated victory with quite a few drinks ... of coke and orange, that is!
“It was one of the best days of my life, playing my first game in the World Cup finals with England. It was an incredible atmosphere down there. Just the colour of it, the Beatles music playing before the game.
“I remember sitting with Teddy Sheringham in doping control for an hour-and-a-half afterwards – the game was a brilliant occasion; the first (England) game of the World Cup, I was hugely proud.”
England went ahead three minutes before the interval when captain Alan Shearer headed in Graeme Le Saux’s free-kick; a deserved reward following a spell of concerted pressure.
Tunisia goalkeeper Chokri El-Quaer kept his side in the game to deny the outstanding Paul Scholes and Sheringham and the chances kept stacking up before an exquisite late curler from Scholes applied the gloss.
A repeat outcome and scoreline thon Monday evening would certainly not go amiss.