In the summer of 2006, as England blundered inexorably through the early stages of the World Cup, Team Fiver made a pact. Should England reach the final, we would spend the entirety of the match going round and round the Circle Line on the London Underground. The train would be totally empty, with the entire country watching the game, allowing us to solemnly quaff cans of Super Tin while praying there would eventually be a slow, weary procession of the glum and the heartbroken, impotent tears slowly moistening the Union Jack paint plastered across their beetroot phizogs. If the opposite happened, and we heard the kind of lusty cheering that could only signal the start of the apocalypse; well, we had the emergency Derringer for that.
We didn’t particularly mind the England team, but the typhoon of witless presumption that surrounded them was too much to bear. That summer was the apex of English football’s Halfwit Years, when all the Golden Generation had to do was turn up, kick Johnny Foreigner up the trousers and lift the trophy – a plan that was foolproof until they were taken to penalties by Portugal in the quarter-finals.
Rather than entering the tournament as certain winners, England go to Russia with the more dignified status of useful outsiders. They have one or two weak points (in goal, in defence, in midfield) but they also have some of the world’s better young players. Harry Kane is the first man to score 1,000 goals in a season, and a youthful core of the team will have benefitted enormously from the Premier League’s galacticoach era. Marcus Rashford is good, too. Nobody really thinks they are going to change the world, but at least they are trying to make it a more interesting place. Their style is the most sophisticated since Terry Venables was in charge, and there is so much to like about Gareth Southgate – not least his utter disdain for the Foreign Secretary he dare not name.
It’s always unwise to project too far ahead when a tournament draw is made, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do. The best England can probably hope for is to lose a quarter-final to Brazil or Germany. That’s OK. It’s not how you lose, it’s the way that you lose it. Football tournaments have a habit of turning goodwill into murderous hatred. But if England play good football; if the country doesn’t get woefully carried away with a 3-0 win over Panama; and if they don’t lose to Iceland, this could be England’s most enjoyable World Cup campaign for a long time. And The Fiver might not need to seek sanctuary on the Circle Line.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“It’s about the road more than the arrival. If it were just about the World Cup, I would take a plane. It is a great chance for me to see new things” – Egypt fan Mohamed Nufal on deciding to cycle from Cairo to Russia for the finals.