When I was 10 years old, Zinedine Zidane scored a penalty in the Estádio da Luz that made England lose and me cry. It was Euro 2004 in Portugal, and I was at the stadium on a hot, summery day for England’s first match against France.
What stands out in my memory is the atmosphere that day. Portugal is such a welcoming country and there were loads of fans there from both England and France. There was a buzz around the city and I was part of it along with my cousin, my uncle and my dad.
When Frank Lampard headed one into the top corner from David Beckham’s free kick, my cousin and I were ecstatic.
Then … Zidane happened.
Two years before that match, my family — my parents, my five siblings and our two dogs — had moved to Portugal. I don’t have too many memories of life in England before that. Adapting to a new country wasn’t too hard for me because my younger brothers and I were always very happy in one another’s company. As long as we were together it didn’t feel like too much of a change. I was playing in the Sporting Lisbon academy and learned Portuguese, which made things easier as well. The English and Portuguese cultures are very different, but together they’re a good mix, I think — in London things move at 100 mph and in Portugal it’s 5 mph. So if you can find a balance between the two it’s a good thing.
When the Euros came to Portugal, the hype leading up to the tournament was unreal, as Portugal is a proud, football-crazy country. Right before the tournament started, my sister won a competition at school to go and watch England train. Luckily for me she decided to take me as one of her guests, and after the training was over I got photos with some of the players, including David Beckham.
I was so, so excited for that first match. And a few days later, I was in the Estádio da Luz, and England were up 1–0 against France in the 91st minute. It felt like the match was over.
And then Zidane got a free kick outside the box. He was pretty far out, but it was Zidane. Everything got quiet.
Then he hit a curling free kick into the far corner.
My cousin and I were pretty sad at that point. But then it got worse. Two minutes later, Thierry Henry got taken down in the box. Penalty to France. Zidane walked up to the spot.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next.
I just remember my cousin and I walking down the steps of the Estádio da Luz, having a proper cry.
That match is my strongest memory from the tournament, but I was lucky enough to go to quite a few other games as well. After the Euros, my family decided to stay in Portugal, and I stayed on at Sporting Lisbon.
Of course, my brothers and I were still obsessed with watching the Premier League on TV — we watched a lot more English than Portuguese football. I was a big fan of Roy Keane when I was younger, and then it was Nemanja Vidić (one of the reasons I like the number 15 is Vidić) and his defensive partner, Rio Ferdinand. But I liked different kinds of players as well. Vidić was a bit of a warrior, yet at the same time I loved to watch Gerard Piqué and Rafael Márquez, who played in both defence and midfield at Barcelona.
My hardest times came before I joined Tottenham. At 16, there was a period when I went on loan to Everton, and that was extremely tough for me. I moved on my own from Lisbon to Liverpool, and for the first six months I didn’t know what I was doing there — I felt completely lost. At that age, you doubt yourself. You give so much to football but you don’t know if it’s going to give anything back. It’s sort of a lottery.
Then in my last season at Sporting Lisbon I barely played any games. In my first season with the senior team I had been involved a lot, but then a new manager came in and I didn’t get as much playing time. That was a horrible period — probably my worst, and I didn’t know what was going to happen.
You know, playing in Portugal is a bit different than playing in England. Things can go south very quickly — the lower leagues in Portugal are not quite the same as they are in England. It was tough for me, but then in the summer a new manager came in, Marco Silva (who’s now the manager at Hull). He was fantastic for me in the month we were both there, and at that point I wasn’t thinking about anything other than trying to start for Sporting Lisbon.
But then Tottenham came about when I was least expecting it. It was a chance that I had to take and thankfully it has worked out well. By the time I started my second season with the club, I thought I might be getting close to an international call-up, but you just don’t know for sure. It’s not like the manager is calling you up saying, “Well, you’re getting close, Eric.”
For my first call-up, I was literally walking back home from the shops when my phone rang. It was Gareth Southgate, who was the under-21 manager at the time. He told me that I was going to be announced in the senior squad the next day. It was amazing, really.
I remember we went straight to Spain to play in a friendly. The match was played in a tiny stadium in Alicante. We were in this small changing room, and it was kind of unusual in a way, because it wasn’t like Wembley, with all the kits hanging there with the spotlights on them — like you picture it in your head. It was just this cramped room with the kits all hanging close together on a little rack. It made it all even more surreal.
I ended up coming on after halftime, alongside Dele Alli, which was quite cool. When Dele first arrived at Tottenham we played quite a few preseason games in midfield together and very quickly we started to get along very well. Dele’s a good lad who loves his football and is very easy to get on with. The way he plays football is the way he is.
Our friendship just shows what’s so great about the game. Dele is a kid from Milton Keynes who made his way to Tottenham and is now playing for England. I grew up in Lisbon and came over to England when I was 20 and ended up playing with him on the national side. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about football — people come from all over the world and it brings them together, no matter where they’re from, their culture, their race or their religion. You meet on the pitch and you’re all equals.
Twelve years after Zidane’s free kick in Portugal, I was on the pitch in an England shirt for Euro 2016. It was surreal, really, especially having experienced the Euros as a fan myself.
In the 73rd minute against Russia, there was a free kick on the edge of box. It’s all a blur really, but I was stood over the ball with Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane.
Wayne, who I’d watched as a kid during Euro 2004, took the first free kick that match, but thankfully he let me take the second one. Scoring that one is among my very best moments in football so far and my family were there to watch it.
I can’t really remember how it ended up being me who took it, and I’ve seen it with commentary since — I don’t think the commentator expected it either.
But Harry ran up and did a little dummy over the ball, and I just … hit it.
When I looked up after striking the ball, I saw the keeper was wrong-footed, and I knew it was going in right away.
I don’t score very often, so I wasn’t too sure how to celebrate. We were right in front of all the England fans, so I went running toward them. My adrenaline took over and I lost control. I kept running to the corner and then I did a knee slide.
Ultimately, the way the tournament ended up left us distraught. Leaving the tournament as we did felt terrible, especially as we knew that we have it in us to do something special. We’re into a new international week now and it’s a great time to be involved with England. We get on well and although football is always fun, it’s more fun when you’re playing with people you enjoy being around.
Reflecting on my career with England so far, that free kick was an incredible moment and I actually have a framed picture in my house of me, Harry, Dele and Wayne running off to the corner like lunatics.
It’s an incredible image, but it also means something more to me, because Wayne was out there on the pitch against France on the day my cousin and I had a proper cry walking out of the Estádio da Luz. Football can be crazy like that.