Thursday, 15 October 2009

Qualified Hysteria

It seems like a very long time since I’ve been excited about June in October – although it’s probably almost exactly four years. The qualifiers for World Cup 2010 are over, and while it’s sad that more of the home nations haven’t made it through, at least England will, this time, have a chance to enter its usual bonkers World Cup Fever mode.

England does seem to do World Cup Fever differently to most nations, however. Apart from perhaps the South Americans, there probably isn’t a national team, nation of fans or national media that manage to combine such outrageous, almost offensive optimism in terms of their team’s chances – i.e. ‘we have a golden generation of players, the best league, the best historical pedigree, who else could possibly win’ and so on – with such nail-biting, excruciating hopelessness and doom-laden prophecies of bad omens, injuries that haven’t happened yet and impassioned arguments for ‘all the teams that are clearly better than ours – Spain want it more, the climate will suit Germany’ et cetera.

Like a lot of what interests me the most about football, the real indicators of this strange, schizophrenic behaviour go on outside the game itself – and this is not purely about the press, though they undoubtedly play a huge part in it. The whims of the press (tabloid primarily, but not exclusively) have an enormous impact on the team’s fortunes; teams have been picked, players dropped and most disgracefully, in the case of the late Sir Bobby Robson, managers have been cruelly vilified and hounded out of their jobs – even out of the country in his case.

More recently, the posing, preening and general twattishness of the infamous WAG culture surrounding the 2006 England team in Baden Baden was a far bigger story for the newspapers than the (admittedly rather dour) displays on the pitch – which can’t have failed to have an effect on the player’s moods or their ability to concentrate on the job at hand throughout the tournament.

Outside of the fantasy world constructed by newspapers and TV pundits, however, even now the signs of a country starting to get twitchy for a major competition are in evidence. It’s tricky to walk into a pub without overhearing (or becoming involved in) the usual amusing post-qualification conversations: they usually begin with someone saying something along the lines of “We can’t get too excited” or “I hope this time there’s less hype and we just let the players get on with it” and then ends with one or two overexcited Englishmen trying to name the squad on not-quite-22 fingers and imagining fantasy World Cup Final scorelines.

I have one friend who, before the 2006 finals, liked to paint a (delightfully unlikely) picture of Gary Neville rocketing home a late winner against Germany (naturally), causing an ecstatic Sven to tear open his shirt, screaming with the sheer Anglo-Swedish passion of it all. This image was conjured again and again, usually ending with everyone attendant adding their own ideas before eventually calming down and, well, looking a bit sad. It seemed so ridiculous – as if we’d been discussing the plot of a fanciful science fiction movie. But still… it could have happened.

And it could happen this time. But it won’t. But it might do.

It’s too easy to get involved in it all – and it’ll be too heartbreaking when it all goes tits up again – but it will make the next eight months fly by, I’m sure of that. One thing is for sure, though, and that’s that the country will be mostly a fun place to be from June 11th onwards. Sure there’ll be the cringe-inducing St. George bunting all over the place, those stupid flags will stick out of people’s car windows and poor old women working in supermarkets will be forced to wear plastic hats and red-and-white tabards.

Sure, The Sun will have COME ON BOYS and ENGLAND EXPECTS (ugh) as front-page headlines at least five times and Gary Lineker will jinx the whole thing by saying, “so are England the team to beat in this group, Lawro?” and there’ll be a live feed from a pub in Aberdeen full of Scottish blokes wearing Argentina shirts and, Christ alive, Des Lynam might even read another Kipling poem out on some doomed digital channel somewhere – but still. England might win the World Cup – and that’s why we do all this, isn’t it?

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