England are good, but are they good enough? Who knows. And who cares? They’re mainly just good fun, and that’s how we should treat them…
The problem with England reaching the World Cup semi-final last year was that, just as the last believers and delusionists had given up any hope of England actually competing for anything and really being a serious football team, expectation was back again.
It’s hard to exactly pinpoint when all hope was lost. Maybe for some the dream died as far back as 1996, that only a cruel god would have prevented Paul Gascoigne from getting his toe on that cross or allowed Gareth Southgate to take that penalty. Maybe it was when we all realised the team featuring your Gerrards and your Owens and your Beckhams and your Ferdinands were never going to win anything. Maybe it was the absence from Euro 2008, the English national sense of entitlement affronted. Maybe it was the grinding grimness of the 2010 World Cup. Maybe it was Roy Hodgson proclaiming that the 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, after England had been eliminated in 2014, had “given the fans something to cheer.” Maybe it was 2016, Iceland and all that.
But reaching rock bottom can be liberating. Or at least that’s what well-meaning friends or Tyler Durden might tell you. Either way, we all probably stopped believing before 2018, but the run to the semis not only made people feel good about England again, they also reignited the belief they could actually win something, that this was the norm again.
Getting to the Nations League finals didn’t help with this either, this idea that England are a force, among the favourites for honours, despite decades of evidence to the contrary.
Which may be true. England probably will be among the favourites to win Euro 2020, particularly as they will only have to briefly leave London in order to do it. Hope rises, expectation grows, the prospect for disappointment becomes all the more crushing.
So the trick is to not think of this England as a good team, which they might be, but as a fun team, which they most definitely are.
All of the elements are there: they have a personable, socially-conscious and thoughtful manager; they have probably the best attacking right-back in the world; they have a clutch of young, talented creative midfielders; they have arguably the best forward line that will be at the tournament; and crucially, they can’t defend for toffee, with a goalkeeper for whom that heady month in Russia increasingly feels like the outlier, and centre-backs who aren’t quite sure what to do at set pieces.
They’ve become a football team to watch rather than really think about. Harry Kane is a case in point. His statistics have been trending downwards for a little while now, leading to analytics-minded sorts declaring that he now is simply no good. But he’s scored 20 goals in 21 appearances this season for club and country, inevitably leading to the sort of high-class Twitter banter that the popular micro-blogging platform is so beloved for: analytics people decide he’s rubbish, anti-analytics people call the analytics people dweebs and virgins, and we all briefly wish that Tim Berners-Lee had got into plumbing or graphic design or something instead.
Ultimately, discussion of Kane’s xG or passing stats is not fun: or, perhaps more accurately, is not why most of us got into watching football. It can be interesting and is undoubtedly useful for those inside the game, but it involves a level of thinking that requires time and takes you away from the basic entertainment of watching football. It also requires us taking football rather too seriously, which is rarely a good idea.
All of this adds up to the conclusion that England are team that should be there to be enjoyed, rather than necessarily admired or expected to do anything. If you’ve been an England fan all your life and are emotionally invested then this might be slightly tricky, but you should probably just think of them like as a fun, entertaining film that you can watch, enjoy, then completely forget about afterwards. Ocean’s Eleven, something like that. They’re ‘take your brain out’ entertainment. Occasionally those films win Oscars, but that’s not really the point of them.
Which most certainly isn’t a dig. It’s part of the point of why we all do this: the essence of the whole thing, why we started watching football in the first place, is that it’s supposed to be fun. And England are great fun. Don’t take them too seriously, and just enjoy.
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