BY JACK DOYLE
There’s something inexplicably attractive about failing to live up to misguided optimism. Within the fundamentals of Britishness there is a part that, for some reason, rewards defeat. A feeling that trying is the real winning. That there is somehow happiness and pride in failure. So, when the World Cup arrives an entire nation – devoid of any real reason for positivity – produces a beautiful scent of hope and will and happiness that wafts over the Yorkshire Dales, the White Cliffs of Dover and the estates of south London. They say it’s the hope that kills you. But if that were the case then I’d have kicked the bucket years ago and wouldn’t have had to endure the pain of losing to Germany on penalties or be subjected to an angry Wayne Rooney lambasting supporters having drawn 0-0 with Algeria.
As the tournament begins, the nation’s apprehension and resignation to ultimate failure evaporates. What is left is a rumbling surge of naïve, misplaced confidence. A feeling of “you know what? We can really do this”. And that charming, perplexing feeling is something that I find so incredibly endearing that whenever the Premier League season draws to a close, the excitement inside me and, as far as I can gather, millions of others grows to a level beyond that of old age pensioners before a royal wedding.
TVs are moved beneath inadequate gazebos in the garden, with seemingly no consideration or solution for the glare of the sun on the screen. The air is thick with the smell of cheap Asda burgers sizzling on a barbecue being negligently cared for by a shirtless, partly intoxicated bloke with a cold beer in one hand and a half-smoked cigarette balanced between two fingers in the other. Joyful laughs and karaoke versions of John Barnes’ rap can be heard over the fences of gardens up and down the nation. Blue skies swathe the land and as the sun fades later in the day, so do the dreams of millions up and down the country as England put in another drab display.
When the decision is made to leave the comfort of home and to perhaps superstitiously affect the fortunes of the team on the pitch by watching the following fixture in a more public environment, there is more of the same ambience as the shadow of importance that only an England World Cup game can create draws ever closer. Entering any pub on match day is an experience that fills me with despair for those who do not look forward to the tournament. All in attendance dressed in that famous white shirt adorned with those three lions. Three lions who should all most probably be helped to move into an animal sanctuary as a result of the repetitive cruelty suffered for over fifty years. Pubs have the ability to hold an atmosphere unlike many others on England match days. Full to the brim with lager-fuelled, expectant fans; their nerves clanging as loudly as the beer barrels that need relentlessly changed by understaffed and underpaid bar men and women. Sharing anxiety and nervousness with others can be a wonderful thing and on match day in the public houses of England. There is seemingly no better example of community.
For however long England are involved in the tournament, the use of flags emblazoned with the cross of St. George cease to be associated with likes of the BNP or the National Front. They are a symbol of positive national pride, something seldom seen in this pre-Brexit limbo Britain. Hung from window sills and from the sides of cars flapping in the wind, causing genuine driving hazards, they are simultaneously – for many – a signal of excitement and the impending doom of what will inevitably occur at some point over the following weeks.
For the divided and somewhat broken nation that England has been in the last few years, to see (almost) every single person wanting the same result, willing the ball to end up in the same net, all in agreement and together in anticipation, it truly is the most beautiful time to be amongst English people. Football can transcend politics, culture, race and religion to such an extent that, for once, I can live for a month with an actual degree of national pride without any morsel of guilt. To have just a thimble full of the hope that Euro ‘96 famously brought the country, with the heady whiff of Cool Britannia/Spice Girls/Britpop/New Labour zeitgeist that accompanied it, is more than enough for me. Too long have we passionately moved away from our connections to one another. Too long have we burned bridges and irreparably damaged relationships in our own communities. But when the World Cup comes around we shut up, pack away our xenophobia (apart from when Germany are playing) into that weird draw that contains everything from used batteries to Rizla papers and we come together as one and it, for me, is as close to being purely content as you can get.
I wouldn’t want the World Cup to happen every year just as I wouldn’t want every day to be Christmas. My body couldn’t stomach the unforgiving starchy and lethargic feeling of a daily roast just as I couldn’t put my heart and liver through the pain and suffering of a yearly World Cup. But when it comes around every four years, when the country comes together and when we’re eliminated within seven days of the opening game, I couldn’t wish to be anywhere else but England.