England supporters are preconditioned to respond to international tournaments in a certain way. They have no faith in their national team at all and, given almost any invitation, they’re keen to stress that loudly.
Yes, it.’s understandable in the historical sense. England haven’t really induced anything other than crushing disappointment or mortifying embarrassment for sixty-two years, so an in-built defense mechanism is entirely rational. It’s normal, too, that they provoke such little interest outside of those tournaments. UEFA has become so disparate that processional qualifying campaigns are now the standard and, of course, international friendlies are nobody’s idea of engaging sport.
But there’s something practiced to this movement, something insincere. Like people who determinedly eschew grammar on social media, or those who spend hours in front of the mirror each morning, determined to perfect that manicured apathy. It’s for effect. True disaffection tends to be silent, so you have to believe that those proclaiming their England indifference most loudly will, when the time comes, be living every pass and shot through June and July, and feeling those knots of tension in their gut.
But it’s so painfully unfashionable to admit that.
Caring? Investing? Take off the boot-cut jeans and stop listening to Coldplay, Centrist Dad…
Now that the domestic season is over, we’re left drifting in a pre-tournament hinterland for a few weeks. On Tuesday, Harry Kane was announced as Gareth Southgate’s new England captain and, shortly after his confirmation, Kane conceded that, yes, he doesn’t believe that his team’s cause is entirely hopeless.
Which was good. Which was what you would expect Kane to say. When, for instance, was the last time an England captain or squad member was asked the same question and replied with muffled laughter or outright dismissal?
More broadly though, what was so very wrong with his optimism? The World Cup is a fantasy land for supporters, a paradise of sporting action. Three games a day (during the group stage), endless coverage and action, and the purest month of footballing indulgence that the game offers. That kind of context demands a suspension of reality and, in the abstract, it’s really a direct invitation for fans from every part of the world to leave their realism at the door. It is a festival and almost all of the magic lies in the taking part. As it will for Panama, for Iceland and, to a lesser extent, Egypt, Peru and Iran.
And for England, too. The local gloom can be traced to past underperformance and is, consequently, rational, but where does the entitlement come from? What is the root of this pervasive attitude which dictates that, unless a squad is clearly capable of winning a World Cup, then it should be derided and dismissed. Germans can justify thinking in that way, the Brazilians, Argentinians, Italians and Spanish too, but this is England – this is three quarter-finals in twenty years England.
This needn’t be read as a call for blind, narrow-minded fervour, nor a return to the insular over-estimation of English players that characterised tournament preludes in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the despondency is still a little much, whether it’s feigned or sincere.
The 2018 World Cup offers the chance to grow and heal with a new generation of players. Some of them are already globally established, others are headed for extremely successful careers, but the majority are just good, likeable footballers. England have a favourable group in Russia and should, barring something untoward, make a first appearance in the competition’s knockout stages in eight years. There’s the strong possibility of them becoming overmatched in the later rounds and they’ll likely struggle against any of the superpowers, but there’s the clear potential for a fine tournament run, some heartening performances and a bump to collective morale.
It’s something to look forward to. These players aren’t owed any sneering, nor any indifference on account of international football’s assumed certainties. After all, there was a Greece in 2004, a Portugal in 2016 and there’s generally at least one side who punch above their weight. Perhaps this is the year when, instead of confected doom, England’s participation can be accompanied by at least a gentle enthusiasm. The recognition that they have their work cut out for them and that there are other, stronger teams lying in wait, but that this might still be fun all the same.
Their participation doesn’t have to end with a final and a trophy for it to be that way.
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