The World Cup invites micro-analysis. It also encourages an odd sort of forward planning which attempts to best-guess a course through an entire tournament.
England are through to the knockout rounds. That’s what matters. Nevertheless, defeat to Belgium, courtesy of a second-string side, a galling lack of pace and accuracy, and Adnan Januzaj’s classy goal, ended the group stage on a sour note. For some, it was confirmation of a conspiracy they were anticipating: finishing second in Group G would clearly seem to benefit Gareth Southgate’s side and, to that end, Brazil have been avoided in a potential quarter-final.
It’s fanciful stuff – something from an Oliver Stone film rather than sport. Defeat may ultimately reward England, but they created enough chances to have won the game and, with a first-team which isn’t yet set in stone, there are places to be won. Ruben Loftus-Cheek impressed, Danny Rose had some moments to concern Ashley Young and, again, Marcus Rashford showed just how dangerous his pace can be. So – no – this was no a carve up or a well-timed submission.
Nor should that defeat or its nature really be much of a concern. Depending on how far England go, lessening the physical burden on key starters could prove to be a precious luxury. The World Cup may inspire a special sort of adrenaline, but with days rather than weeks between these fixtures, progress is as much to do with endurance as it is anything else. A fresh Harry Kane for Colombia, a rested Dele Alli, Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson? No bad thing.
But in the abstract sense, defeat did matter.
England’s detractors will say, quite correctly, that victories over Tunisia and Panama were unreliable barometers. However, that level-headed assessment misdiagnoses the source of the enthusiasm surrounding this side. This England aren’t being celebrated ahead of any assumed achievement, but because they offer variation on what came before.
England have been a laughing stock and the national ego was deeply bruised by defeat to Iceland two years ago and, to a lesser extent, the group stage exit in 2014. Within that context, last-minute winners absolutely should be sending plastic pint glasses flying and, irrespective of who the opposition is, leading 5-0 at half-time is definitely cause for uninhibited joy.
It’s relief more than optimism and, though set to be wilfully misinterpreted, the “coming home” trend on social media is really quite tongue-in-cheek. The supporters of rival home nations will doubtless be cackling about English arrogance, hiding in the long grass and pining for a chastening defeat, but that isn’t really the case. Not here, at least.
That’s really why the Belgium defeat mattered – and why it caused such despondency. These games are fun. They are actually to be looked forward to. I live in a town which rarely seems aware of football’s existence and yet, in the hours before Thursday’s game, the streets were flooded with replica shirts and those cheap knock-offs sold in newsagents and chemists. You know the type: plain white with a crooked St George’s Cross, the outfit of the Jonny-come-lately who just wants to fit in.
That in itself wasn’t unusual – the World Cup is one big bandwagon after all – but the palpable enthusiasm of the wearers was. Previously, people have trudged to England matches. Whether they’re headed for the pub, a big public screen or just their own living rooms, even the casual types have seemed despondent. They hope for the best, but expect the worst – they anticipate something dull, difficult or just outright embarrassing. It’s clearly different at the moment, though, because these are people with bright eyes and expectation, qualities which haven’t been associated with England for a generation.
Tenuous as it may sound, that likely also has a root in the societal mood. Over the last few weeks, football in this country has been a relief. It has provided a refreshing change from past sporting memories, of course, but also respite from a national news cycle (and existence) which grows ever more negative. Prior to Belgium, the 180 minutes that England played in Russia were a break from what is really a fairly grinding reality. Be it the Brexit asteroid, 2018’s class of witless politicians, or any number of under-performing public services, the football was offering a necessary escape.
In fact, the more you witness the public response to this side, the more it seems that the people need it. They don’t require (or expect) these players to win the World Cup or even necessarily to eliminate historic rivals from it, but they are depending on them to offer some solace. A break from the nonsense, perhaps, or the partisan gibberish which has lately become our national language.
England isn’t much fun at the moment. Being English is decidedly worse. Anything that challenges that despondency is, of course, going to embraced. For the sake of difference, if nothing else.
But Belgium wasn’t that. Not at all. In fact, it was an irritating default back to the status quo and a denial of that precious sunshine. Ultimately, for as long as they can be and in whatever circumstances they’re able to, England need to be good news.
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.
Also published on Medium.