I’m used to tabloid-fuelled unrealistic expectations pre-tournament, and I have over the years become cynical enough to distrust such hype, but this time there was not much by way of it; recent experiences like the 2014 World Cup and the Euros two years ago will do that. Now, the sense of optimism that has developed has been based on what the England team has done on the pitch. Some people started to believe that football might be coming home after the 6-1 win over Panama; yes it was only Panama, but when did England last put six past anyone at a World Cup? Never, that’s when (for those of us who’ve sat through such stuff as that awful 0-0 draw with Algeria back in 2010, to be five up at half time was very heaven). Even the defenders have been scoring in addition to Harry Kane. Out came the replica heavy-cotton red shirt with the three lions badge.
For the knock-out stage, there was the small matter of winning a penalty shoot-out, another thing that England have never previously managed to do at a World Cup (following which I hugged three complete strangers, one of whom had just completed a victory dance on a table), and all of a sudden we were into the last eight, in addition to which Germany, Argentina and Portugal were already out and all that stood between England and the World Cup final were Sweden, followed by Croatia or Russia.
How can one not dare to dream in such circumstances?
The Sweden game, billed in advance as a tough one, was class, a game in which England never looked like losing (not that that’s stopped us before, and it required some good defending and goalkeeping as well as those two goals at the other end). Optimism and hope surge to the surface; there is a very real sense that, wonderful though it’s been so far, the best is yet to come. When was the last time that I was this optimistic about England at a World Cup, or any tournament for that matter? Probably after the second-round demolition of Denmark in 2002, even though we had Brazil next, back then. Now it’s Croatia in the semi-final.
The semi-final of a World Cup! This hasn’t happened since I was in primary school, and we are now at the point where there are Internet memes involving ‘Three Lions’ being incorporated into everything from The Matrix to Only Fools and Horses. I’ve even played that song (the original Euro ’96 version, not the 1998 re-write) to a minibus full of tourists from overseas. More than once. One of them sang along. Did I think that this would be happening when the tournament started, less than a month ago? No I did not.
Watching the football aside, I’ve just finished reading a book about the England team. It’s called Fifty Years of Hurt and it’s by the football journalist Henry Winter, a writer of much experience who I’ve always found to be one worth reading (he did twenty-odd years at The Daily Telegraph before getting snapped up by The Times in 2015, which you could say provides more evidence for what Private Eye’s been saying about the Torygraph for a few years now with regard to it getting rid of its decent journos). The book’s title should be enough to tell you that it was published in 2016, just before the European Championships to be precise (the run-up to a major international tournament is always a good time to bring out a new book about football); I, for what it’s worth, picked up the hardback copy in a charity shop for a couple of quid, a bargain given the undoubted quality of the author and the fact that the original retail price is given on the dust-jacket as £20.
Worth reading? Oh yes. On picking it up, I assumed that it would be a chronological account of England’s post-1966 woes, but it’s not that. It’s more a thematic study, taking in many interviews with players (Alan Mullery, Steven Gerrard, Ian Wright, Jack Charlton, Alan Shearer, etc, etc) as he looks at diverse aspects that seek to explain why England haven’t won anything since 1966 (expect Le Tournoi, the France ’98 warm-up tournament which doesn’t really count). There are penalty shoot-outs, of course (“Fifty years of hurt are pockmarked by 12 yards of hurt. Names and shoot-out dates hang like tattered regimental flags over the battlefield of tournament football”), along with discussions about academies, the ‘bubble’ in which England players become ensconced (a source of much ridicule; “I think of players’ past failures to open their eyes to the world outside the Bubble, embarrassing episodes” – like at the 2010 World Cup, which the squad mainly spent in “a retreat surrounded by high-wire fences … so cut off from the tournament in South Africa it could be South Mimms … England want seclusion, to be able to train in peace, but they miss out on the World Cup party”), ‘flair’ players both of the English and foreign varieties (“analysis of the fifty years of hurt must pay due homage to the merchants of menace who wreck English ambitions … Maradona, [Cristiano] Ronaldo, Pirlo and Suárez provide a painful reminder to English football of an obligation to breed world-class performers who spread sustained distress among opponents … England’s inability to deal with that special quartet also underscores the importance of adopting a more sophisticated game-plan to stifle them”) and of course the pervading importance of what Winter calls ‘the Show’, by which he means the Premier League which dominates all as far as English football is concerned.
Much of the emphasis is from the Nineties onwards, which ties in with the years in which Winter himself has been following England. He seems to skip effortlessly through the years, back and forth as required. the chapter on the mistrust or mis-use of English ‘flair’ players goes directly from Glenn Hoddle as a player to Glenn Hoddle as the England manager at France ’98. My one quibble is his constant use of the present tense which can get a little confusing when he’s digressing from present (2016) to past, but other than that it is worth a read, one of those book that anyone with an interest in the England football team should take a look at.
He touches a bit on something that we’ve been hearing a lot of at this World Cup, about teams being ‘streetwise’. That’s the notion of not breaking the rules but bending or stretching them; for example, if you’re down after a challenge, stay down while the ref appraises the situation, and while he’s doing that several of your team-mates will be on at him to point out that a foul has been committed and ask what he intends to do about it. It’s not outright cheating but it certainly seems to be a way-point on the road to it; there is a fine line between a team being ‘streetwise’ and a team being just plain ‘dirty’. Nevertheless, some teams are very good at this sort of behaviour. England are not (“Although not averse to milking contact in the area to obtain penalties, England tend not to react theatrically outside the box”) and it has often worked against us. In Winter’s book, Michael Owen has some interesting things to say on this (with particular regards to the Beckham sending-off against Argentina in 1998), while Roy Hodgson has some wise words on it as well. Having been brought up on English football, I’m torn. I don’t really like this sort of behaviour (being ‘streetwise’ really is just gamesmanship by another name), but I’m enough of a realist to know that it is a part of the modern game that isn’t going to go away, and teams that have this streetwise streak to them do tend to do better.
What really surprised me about Winter’s book is how much this bloke actually cares. When switching the focus from the players to the supporters – not the armchair/pub ones like me but the ones (often supporters of lower-division clubs, tellingly) who part with more money than they probably have in order to travel the world to watch England – he writes of his pride in having “attended 250 England games on the spin, including six as a supporter when placed on gardening leave by the Telegraph. The thought of missing a game induces palpitations … I’ve been spat at by a fan outside Wembley for daring to criticize the team I admire most. I’ve had players’ parents vilifying me to my face, on the phone and via email for slating their offspring for underperforming for England. It’s all worth it. It’s a privilege to cover England, to travel the world from Sapporo to Rio and see them play, and to appreciate the passion they still inspire.” The passion comes out, and I like the writer all the more for that. Funny really, the fans don’t usually get to see the journalists as fellow-fans but in a sense that’s what they are, for the most part. However this World Cup pans out, I would love it if Henry Winter were to bring out a follow-up to Fifty Years of Hurt about Gareth Southgate’s England at Russia 2018.
One last point, that is not about Henry Winter’s book: the England-Croatia semi-final will also be a deciding match in the Unofficial Football World Championship (UFWC). This competition, which is not sanctioned by FIFA in any way, shape or form, uses a boxing-style method of deciding which team is the best in the world (ie. you have to defeat the reigning champion to become the champion). It was created in 2003 but has been back-dated all the way back to the birth of international football in the 1870s. Peru held the title going into the World Cup, only to lose the title to Denmark in the first round; as Denmark were subsequently knocked out by Croatia in the second round, they are currently the unofficial world champions although such is the nature of knock-out tournaments that whoever wins the World Cup on Sunday will (perhaps unknowingly) leave Russia as the unofficial as well as the official world champions.
Come on England. It’s coming home.