This summer has been a remarkable one for England. Not only have we experienced probably the longest heatwave in decades, following a protracted and savage winter (further suggesting our ecosystem is slowly morphing into that of Westeros from Game of Thrones), World Cup 2018 in Russia has done something none of us who live in the UK expected.
It made us dream again.
Though I grew up with a Dad passionate about the beautiful game, and I have always maintained at least a passing interest in the sport over the years (despite being an Aston Villa fan and, therefore, a supporter used to crushing disappointment), in all honesty my interest in football has waned over the years, especially since I was a child. The game at club level is overstuffed with exorbitant wages, prima donna players and billionaire-owned clubs who dominate the top level. My reason to care about the Premier League faded away long ago, and up until this summer, I felt very much the same about the English national side.
I’m of the age to just about remember Italia ’90, the last tournament England reached a World Cup Semi-Final, as an eight year old boy. My first ever World Cup, the defeat didn’t quite register. I was too young. The historic, England-hosted Euro ’96 was my first full emotional investment, and was probably the last England team who felt truly good enough as a collective to win a tournament – Gazza, Shearer, Cole etc… they felt like heroes. The days of Beckham, Ferdinand, Scholes etc… over the following decade had their moments, but they never truly gelled as a unit in the same way, and since many of those great players began to retire, the England national team steadily seemed to grow worse and worse and worse.
Going into Russia ’18, few truly believed England would reach the Semi-Final, and equal an effort not achieved since 1990. An entire generation of young people have never known an achievement like that by the England football team, and fewer still were around for the historic 1966 World Cup victory, on home soil, which coined the popular Skinner & Baddiel mid-90’s anthem ‘Three Lions’ with the memorable lyrics “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming… Football’s coming home”. Though a nation of varied and diverse sports, England’s national sport has always been football in terms of popularity and reach – no other sporting event comes close to a successful England tournament performance in capturing the spirit of the nation.
That’s what happened this month. This England team captured something that hasn’t existed for quite some time.
Now I’ve never talked about sport before and I seldom will, as for the most part it isn’t where my passions lie. But this World Cup swept me away to a degree I haven’t experienced for at least a decade, perhaps longer. I came into the World Cup barely knowing who the majority of our young, fresh-faced players were. I write this, on the evening of our defeat to Croatia in the Semi-Final, not just knowing names like Pickford, Trippier, Kane, Maguire or Lingard, but venerating them. They have displayed a team spirit and true desire to represent their country which belies the common belief that most England players are more interested in their club football, and the vast salaries that accompany it, than performing on the international stage. They may not have won the tournament, but they won the imaginations of the English people.
Culturally, they created a brief but powerful moment in the English psyche, particularly over the week they qualified from the Knockout Stage following an unbearably tense penalty shootout against an unsportsmanlike Colombia side. The players became household names, watched by thousands if not millions of people who had never heard their names before, let alone observed them play. The team’s manager, Gareth Southgate, went swiftly from slightly gawky, Football Association ‘yes man’ to inspiring sex symbol to mothers all over the country, whose trademark waistcoat, shirt and tie match side combo was being replicated to such a degree that Marks & Spencers were running out of stock. This group of sportsmen triggered a surge of pride that surprised a great many.
We must be careful not to misalign this feeling with established jingoism. One of the more tiring aspects of international football has long been the nationalistic fervour the game can create, and as someone who is deeply suspicious of nationalism as an entity, seeing St George’s flags draped out of windows on suburban streets fills me normally with dread rather than pride. Football fans have a dark and ugly history when it comes to nationalistic support, and even in this World Cup incidents such as fans trashing IKEA shops following our Quarter Final defeat of Sweden proves an idiotic minority are happy to use football as an excuse not just for nationalism but grandstanding racism. Yet what this England team have done, in their performance, briefly took us as a nation beyond simple jingoism.
They gave us a sense of unity.
England’s heroic performance in Russia ’18 is timed not just ironically but also perhaps aptly. The Western world is gripped in a bigger, much darker cultural moment for modern democracy, whether thanks to the rise of ultranationalism in the United States, fuelled by a deep-seated corruption in Russia, or the madness of the Brexit debacle currently dismantling British politics and the ruling Conservative Party. The United Kingdom as a name is the biggest irony right now as the UK has never been more divided, in terms of national identity and personal politics. A country that for decades was fairly centrist in terms of policy, whether under Conservative or Labour government rule, is now caught between the socialist ‘left’ and a late-stage-capitalist ‘right’. The middle seems no longer to exist.
Brexit has become the cultural talking point of the latter part of the 2010’s, and threatens to overshadow an entire generation. Half the country voted to leave the European Union, half voted to stay, despite the Tory party claiming the ‘majority’ want Brexit. This is the chief amongst an entire legion of lies that swirl through the British media day in, day out, by a government who have secured the power base of the rich and entitled, and are systematically dismantling the prospects of anyone under the poverty line. So called ‘ordinary people’ are struggling, and this includes those such as myself who work in a professional environment, who are not destitute, but are still finding it hard to keep their head above water. No matter what media propaganda, on both the left or right may suggest, the UK is far from Theresa May’s promised ‘strong and stable’ country.
The English people have not lost their identity, or sense of purpose, but find it held hostage to mercurial politics which protects the few at the expense of the many.
Unlike the United States, the UK has never been a country founded on the principles of a ‘dream’, a collective belief that we can aspire to achieve and prosper or overcome our own barriers. If anything, British people examine life with the ‘glass half empty’ principle, always bracing ourselves for failure and disappointment as if we are batting down the hatches for bad weather. If someone asked me, what does it mean to be British, or English? I just wouldn’t know what to say. I don’t see myself in those terms. One of the reasons I find myself vehemently against Brexit is not because the EU isn’t a flawed institution, but rather because as a national concept it distances us from our neighbours when we should be learning from history and attempting to unite as human beings, not simply as a country. If the British have been successful at anything over the centuries, with relative consistency, its mainly nationalistic conflict.
When now you consider the parlous state of British politics, the austere measures to protect the wealthy, and how even on the polar opposite of the spectrum you have a socialist fantasy taking place with a political party who promised social revolution but have delivered nothing but empty, if dignified, appeasement, England particularly as a country feels rudderless. We are looking for the kind of heroes we see in the movies or on television. James Bond may be facing a struggle for survival in the post-#MeToo era, but The Doctor’s exciting, upcoming reinvention as a female icon could give that character a new lease of life. This England football team gave us, even for just a few weeks, a collective group of modern heroes for our children to look up to, who inspired nostalgia in anyone 30 or over, and a leader in Southgate who embodied a quiet strength and belief in a team ethic, shot through with a holistic focus on wellbeing, who people could point to and whose character we only wished those in actual power could demonstrate.
Western culture is, and has been for some time, in the throes of enormous change, in everything from politics to sport all the way through to fiction and entertainment. For the English, World Cup 2018 reminded us that we *can* still unite as people, even for just a while. We don’t need nationalism to bring out the worst in who we are, to focus on xenophobia or the kind of backwards rhetoric employed by Brexit and its game-playing political supporters. We don’t even need to be proud Englishmen or Englishwomen, but rather humans who can believe in a common goal.
Football may not have brought the World Cup home, but for a moment in our culture it brought us something else, something even more valuable, and something lacking in our collective consciousness right now.
Football brought home hope.