Football didn’t come home this summer but, in truth, it was never supposed to. For a while it felt like it just might – the entire nation suddenly and inexplicably gripped by belief, beckoning the trophy back toward English shores with a carefree chorus – and nothing had felt that good in years. But it wasn’t to be.
Still, it may all have ended in heartbreak, but the heartbreak was unfamiliar, it wasn’t particularly English, and it showed the country that England didn’t need to win it all to come home as winners.
The very notion of England triumphing at the 2018 World Cup entered the nation’s collective consciousness through the back door. It snuck in, taking up camp in the hallway while most in the living room were far too enraptured by mania of a freewheeling VAR to notice, and swiftly hope laid its spreading roots. Within days the ridiculous concept had crept into almost every home in England and it set about seducing us all.
Given that the people of England never once planned to throw their support behind their team — in fact, many had long since declared their intentions to do the opposite by the time Gareth Southgate’s men lined up to contest their opening fixture; they were “done with England” — the metaphor is apt in theory only. The desire to support seeped in slowly but spread rapidly. It was viral.
Yet it feels perverse to describe it as though it were a virus or weed because it wasn’t a disease, not even one of widespread delusion, not of any kind. It was the most joyous phenomenon, it was an epidemic of enthusiasm, it was a warm sun rising and gently beating down on the faces of a nation who had locked themselves out in the cold because they were tired of believing in false dawns.
And so, warm once more, the country sang. They lifted their hands and their voices and day after day belted out the one song that best encompasses the entirely of English football culture, the quintessential self-deprecating ballad of alien optimism: Three Lions. “Football’s Coming Home.”
An atypical summer anthem, written and released not by some chart-hit-factory-working producer, or last Saturday’s five-minutes-of-famer, but by one of the country’s most beloved comedy duos; two men firmly entrenched within the mire one inevitably finds themselves in should they fit awkwardly at the centre of the Venn diagram that juxtaposes the unenviable states of ‘being English’ and ‘loving football’. Sung first out of pure irony. Then out of camaraderie. Then out of hope. More than 20 years after its initial release, the song went to number one in the UK charts. Again.
To the children who watched on through extended bedtimes, the youthful lot without decades of agony to call upon in order to form a fair set of expectations upon their country, England’s squad heard their cries about the empty-cabinet-shaped monster in the closet and assuaged their fears. Painting themselves as ambitious, confident, humble servants, they showed the round of 16 and those ghastly penalty shootouts to be conquerable.
And for those placed somewhere between the old and the new – those with sufficient memories of heartbreak to be cautious but young and cocky enough to find belief still easy to come by – it meant so much more. More than football, even.
For England’s contemporary youth, the newly politically-activated, left-skewing, equality-chasing youth, England’s unlikely journey was a long-awaited antidote to Brexit. England winning the World Cup couldn’t have healed the wounds of the infamously divisive referendum that split the nation betwixt in 2016 but, in the noble pursuit of it, the team united many who found themselves on a playing field that could, for a month at least, focus on the events of the playing field alone.
On Twitter, the veritable sounding board for the opinion-wielding world, the Conservatives and UKIP attempted to leap onto the bandwagon to give our boys a good well-done and partake in a spot of haughty guffawing and self-effacing back-patting only for them to be told, in no uncertain tones, to fuck off. “If football did come home you wouldn’t let it across the border,” came the emphatic retort.
The entire endeavour, from an England perspective, was like a lucid dream, into which a nation, historically renowned for a stiff upper lip as opposed to a heart on a sleeve, invested as heavily as their emotions would allow. Why? Because the swells of shared optimism that rose from the streets could scarcely be avoided and being inside of it all felt incredible.
Wading gleefully through deluges of lager, jostling beneath cider showers, the every day England fan sloshed tentatively towards a most unlikely promised land, led by an ethnically diverse, inspiringly youthful, unabashedly exuberant squad of likeable players; a squad that better than ever before represented today’s England, a modern England, an inclusive England.
Jordan Pickford; commanding and magnificent. Harry Maguire’s enormous head, on everything. Kyle Walker, jet-heeled centre-back extraordinaire. The utter nonchalance of John Stones. Kieran ‘The Bury Beckham’ Trippier. The metronomic Jordan Henderson. Positivity personified in Jesse Lingard. The Golden-Booted Harry Kane. And at the helm, the infinitely loveable Gareth Southgate stood proudly, not with the bloodied shield of St George held aloft or the nationalistic declarations of Rule Britannia on his tongue, but with his arms open wide; open initially having let his young upstarts out into the unknown to make their own mistakes, just as he had in 1996, and open still when they returned, to welcome them home with an honest embrace and the words “you did good, kid” to treasure.
In mid-June, a plane carrying 24 Englishmen departed for Russia in pursuit of a second star, while the nation they left behind could barely muster a farewell between them, instead wondering why they had even bothered. When they came home a month later, though football never followed them, as their millions of fans had just begun to hope, those same men were welcomed as heroes. They weren’t champions but they made us dream. It makes you wonder just what we might wake up to at the Euros in 2020.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp