As for as World Cup preludes go, England’s has actually been quite interesting. Not in the act of qualifying, of course, because that’s been another dreary procession, but in the flickers of modernity which have sparked throughout.
True, Southgate’s England isn’t playing the sort of football to stretch the ideological fabric of the game, but there’s enough about them to pique the interest. For once, high-profile players haven’t defaulted into the squad on reputation alone, difficult selection decisions haven’t been avoided for fear of the tabloid press and, at the time of writing, it seems likely England will not only enter the tournament utilising a back-three but will also employ Kyle Walker as a converted centre-half.
Okay, so this needs context: it’s the kind of logic and experimentation that one expects from the Germans, Spanish or French and, in effect, that such simple change can stir enthusiasm in this country is really a measure of quite how low the bar now is. Fine. But this is England. More precisely, this is England not running headlong into the landmines and mortally wounding themselves before the competition has even begun.
Where are the unfit players and the untried teenagers? Where’s the obvious squad deficiency which will come looming into relevance with just a single injury?
Southgate has chosen a young squad. Not a group of superstars-in-waiting, but a collection of good players who, with the right nourishing experience and a bit of luck, should all enjoy good-to-excellent careers. In doing so, he might just have found the perfect balance: they’re just good enough to convince everyone back home that Russia 2018 might be fun, but not sufficiently talented to provoke any of the usual silliness. Nobody believes that the Jules Rimet trophy is in this team’s immediate future and the atmosphere around it is far calmer as a result.
But, if not winning, what is England’s task?
They must build bridges. The most corrosive effect of the past two decades hasn’t been the creation of lingering animosity, but the disenfranchisement of a new generation of supporters. Hoping England do well at tournaments is not only emotionally reckless, but it’s also chronically uncool. Football isn’t the only cause of that – thank you to Brexit, the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition for that – but it’s the most relevant issue here. At some point in the past, England became such a hopeless cause, so obviously destined for failure, that the only option was to hide behind a pre-made mask of indifference. Now, the done thing is not just to skip over their friendlies and qualifying games, but to tell everyone within earshot that you’re doing so.
If you’re watching England and hoping for the best, then there must be something wrong with you. Worse, you’re likely one of those odd, sociopathic types who stalks foreign cities with a painted face and bare chest, looking for a local monument or business to ruin. So this squad’s task is to cure that – not to splinter those associations entirely, but at least create the conditions under which wanting England to do well isn’t the declaration of a personality disorder.
Really, there has never been a better time for a heroic failure. Perhaps not in the semi-finals, let’s not get carried away, but consider the value of a penalty exit to a Brazil or a Germany (someone inarguably superior), a few crying players in the aftermath showing that they care, and then a dignified arrival back at Heathrow to the sound of polite applause. No scandal, no preposterous stories, no basis for anybody being dragged over the tabloid coals.
How about a strong showing from Raheem Sterling to give a righteous middle-finger to his feral, racially-motivated attackers. What if Dele Alli or Harry Kane stamped their own pedigree on the biggest stage of them all – not with a final hat-trick or even a last-minute winner, but just with the kind of performances which ignited some mild English pride.
That’s really all that’s necessary. England doesn’t need to pull up any trees in Russia, they don’t even need to knock over any pre-tournament favourites, but they must end the cycle of negativity. Nobody’s hoping for any ad hoc bus parades or a gratuitous Bank Holiday, but the effect of surviving a World Cup without becoming a punchline would still be powerful.
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