The unbearable hope -- and inevitable pain -- of supporting England at a World Cup
(Editors' note: We asked Nick Hornby -- novelist and screenwriter who wrote about his obsessive fandom of Arsenal in "Fever Pitch" -- to reflect on what it's like to follow England during a World Cup. This is the first of three pieces he'll be writing for ESPN while England chases glory in Russia.)
"You've got to face the fact there may now be a meltdown. OK?," said a senior member of the squad this week. "I don't want anybody to panic during the meltdown. No panic. Pro bono publico, no bloody panic. It's going to be all right in the end."
Yes, it's time for another England World Cup campaign, and it doesn't matter that the senior member of the squad is Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, or that he happened to be talking about the Brexit negotiations, now into what seems like their ninetieth year, and with no end in sight.
An English World Cup campaign will almost certainly include a meltdown, and there will be panic, and introspection, and calls for something, anything, to be done to -- or by, or for -- somebody. But it's going to be all right in the end. It's just that as with Brexit, nobody knows when the end will be or whether any of you old enough to be reading this will live long enough to see it.
England's two friendly victories this past week, against a poor Nigeria team and a workmanlike Costa Rica, allowed the nation (or the nation's football commentators, at least) to accentuate the positive. The thumping header with which Gary Cahill opened the scoring against Nigeria got them excited about set pieces; more ominously, it earned Cahill the man-of-the-match award. The willing, likeable but tortoise-paced centre-back is not the recipient one might have been hoping for in a home game against Nigeria, with Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling all up the other end.
In the game against Costa Rica, TV pundit and former England manager Glenn Hoddle enthused about the left-footed full-back Danny Rose putting a left-footed cross into the penalty area from the left side of the pitch. "Lovely to see," said Hoddle. "Natural."
Nothing came from the cross and if you have a season ticket at Rochdale, you've probably seen something similar in every home game this season but keep it to yourself. England need to keep morale high and if that means praising an international footballer for kicking the ball with his stronger foot, then so be it. Pro bono publico, no bloody panic.
In previous tournaments, it was possible to feel the disappointment turning to rage and bile even before a ball had been kicked. In 2014, the "Golden Generation" had almost vanished in a fog of under-achievement but Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were still there. Two goals, two defeats and one goal-less draw later, they were home again, after the group stage, and England could draw a veil over another era of expectancy and failure.
This time around, the players are not celebrities, not yet; those with no interest in football would be hard pushed to name a single member of the squad, let alone any of their wives or girlfriends. Several players -- Marcus Rashford, Rose, Cahill, Danny Welbeck -- can only occasionally push themselves into the first team at their clubs, and one of them, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, can't force his way into his club at all: he's spent the year on loan at Crystal Palace instead.
So maybe -- and this, inevitably, is an undertone in the conversation -- that could work in England's favour, right? A young, hungry and humble squad, nearly all of them belonging to a top four Premier League team; a modest, thoughtful, likeable coach ... why couldn't a team like that win the World Cup? Why couldn't Dele Alli destroy Spain like he destroyed Real Madrid in the Champions League for Spurs?
Then you remember who won the Champions League, and that the Spurs vs. Real Madrid game was a group match that didn't count for much, and that when it came to the crunch, Spurs (who are providing five of the 23-man squad) conceded two late goals to a battle-hardened Juventus team and went out of the competition. Nobody in this England squad has ever scored a goal in the World Cup finals; then again, the national team have only scored 20-odd goals during the five tournaments that have taken place since Sterling was born.
Usually in the build-up to an England World Cup campaign, expectations, both great and grim, come out in precisely the same place: we think we have more than half a chance either way.
The second of the two friendlies this week was played at Leeds' Elland Road ground and the difference between the atmosphere there and the atmosphere at Wembley for the Nigeria game was striking. The Leeds fans got behind the team and sang the National Anthem, giving the players a rousing send-off.
The Wembley fans were much more apathetic, as usual, and though there are easy explanations -- the rest of the country rarely gets to see the national team play outside the capital -- this World Cup, and the whole idea of national identity, is taking place at a very peculiar moment in the nation's history.
There is a schism in the country just as there is in the United States; those who voted to leave the EU and those who voted to stay are snarling at each other with mutual incomprehension. The city of Leeds voted (only just) to stay in the EU but the north of England (and Leeds is very much in the north of England) voted overwhelmingly to leave.
Meanwhile, 75 percent of Londoners voted to remain. England's relationship with Europe is complicated (at least from our side -- one suspects gloomily that it's much more straightforward over the Channel) and it's not hard to imagine that in the current climate, the England team means different things to different English people. If, as some fear, our far-right nutters clash with the Russian hard-right nutters, then feelings will become even more diffuse.
Of course, it would be great if England won the tournament but that "if" is too small to the naked eye to be any use to the editor of this piece. What many of us crave is an England team we can like: one that plays fast, muscular, ambitious English football, beats the teams that are inferior to them and goes out bravely to the one that's better.
It's not much to ask, but it would help an unhappy country to feel better about itself.
An English novelist and screenwriter, Nick is best known for his seminal football memoir "Fever Pitch," as well as his novels "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy."