This is the fourth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
At the time of writing, I am not particularly exercised about England’s chances. Don’t worry, it will happen. I’ll get caught up in it, will once again face the possibility of having to relish my least favorite taste: the taste of England, the taste of ashes in the mouth.
I am always shocked by the way it takes hold, this faith in England, the desire for England to go all the way, as they say, in spite of the long record of thwarted hopes, hopes that are so necessary a prelude to the lingering after-taste—the permanent after-taste, if such a thing is possible—of ashes in the mouth that, as when savoring a complex wine, the fire of hope itself already burns with more than a hint of the ashes to come. Even bearing all this in mind, and even if the Russians are better-prepared, fitter, and, not for the first time in their history, fighting on home soil, I still have faith in our hooligans to show their mettle and do us proud.
When it comes to the actual football, I’m less sanguine. The two great English adventures of my adult life were Italia ’90 and the European Championships of 1996. The rest of the time, it’s been pretty dismal fare: endless variants of a single theme of dashed hopes, which is also how those two great adventures ended, in penalty shootouts against Germany in the semi-finals of both tournaments. On other occasions, there’s been an almost thrilling sense of failure—failure as achievement—as England somehow succeeds in being unable to crawl out of the group stage bloated with teams that are there just to make up the numbers.
I can name the entire English squad of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but, off the top of my head, can come up with only about eight of the current lot. I like Harry Kane, our new-style old-fashioned center forward, and I love Jamie Vardy with his yob face and yob haircut. Good old England, good old Yob-land. We want England to be non-racist, non-homophobic, non-misogynistic, and all that, but, God knows, however much we hate yobs, we don’t ever want England to be yob-free. Yes, yes, good old Bobby Moore, wiping his hand like a young King Lear before collecting the Jules Rimet trophy from the young Queen at Wembley in 1966, but in some ways, Liam Gallagher, former Oasis frontman and unrepentant super-yob, still full of yob-swagger—would be the ideal England captain.
Who is the captain these days? I dunno, but I hope he and manager Gareth Southgate drum into the lads the single most important lesson, the lesson that has fallen on deaf ears for many years: no cheating. Oh, but what’s the point? Football is all about cheating, it’s nothing but cheating, cheating and moaning about being cheated. They might as well rebrand it cheatball and have the trophy recast in the image of Thierry “le tricheur,” Henry’s handling the ball against Ireland in 2009. I look back nostalgically to the days when diving—or simulating being fouled—was supposedly the preserve only of highly skilled foreigners, but England now has home-grown, world-class divers like Dele Alli of Tottenham. And although we must not get sentimental about the pre-cheating past, it’s difficult, when thinking of a scumbag like Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid and Spain), not to feel fondly toward the England defender Nobby Stiles. Instructed by manager Alf Ramsey ahead of the 1966 semi-final against Portugal to take Eusebio out of the game, the noble Stiles reportedly sought clarification: “You mean permanently?”
Even though England had its share of hard men back in the day—Ron “Chopper” Harris, Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter—we still considered ourselves superior to the Argentinians, whom Alf deemed “animals,” unfit even to exchange shirts with after we’d sent them packing. So when push comes to shove, when it comes to shoving opponents in the back and pushing them around in—no, it was just outside!—the penalty area, I always want England to win. I wanted us to win against Argentina in 1986 after Maradona handled the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton before he sent us packing with the best goal ever seen in the World Cup finals. I wanted us to win that match even though it would have meant that, for the rest of the tournament, we’d have been left watching Terry Butcher rather than El Diego himself. In retrospect, that would have been the worst possible outcome because then we would have missed out on seeing Maradona rightfully crowned as the greatest player in the world, one of the three greatest players of all time—right up there with Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles.
The thing is, you see, I love England even if it is, in some respects, a bit of a shithole and, in others, a complete shithole. No one will ever put it better than D.H. Lawrence of Nottingham Forest FC who considered himself “English in the teeth of all the world, even in the teeth of England.”
So I’m glad I’ll be back there, in England, for the tailend of the group stages rather than watching the tournament from lovely, yob-less California, where the vast time difference means that many games will be kicking off at dawn. I have an event to attend at a bookstore in London on the evening of England’s last group match against gallant Belgium. With luck, we’ll have qualified by then, will have sent Tunisia and Panama packing, the way we were meant to have sent Iceland packing two years ago in the European Championships. Otherwise, if the group competition goes down to the wire, to that last match against silky Eden Hazard of Chelsea and the gallant Belgians, no one will be at my event. I won’t be there.
The World Cup overlaps with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. I watch way too much tennis on TV, and whereas I never feel that all the time spent watching too much tennis is time wasted, I often feel terrible after watching boring football matches when I could have been reading an even more boring work of great literature. Sometimes, after ninety minutes of nullifying normal time, plus injury time and the stultifying mutual negation of extra time, the only interesting thing is trying to guess who will be “inconsolable” after missing a penalty during the shootout resolution toward which the game has been drifting, goal-less, since kick-off. But that’s irrelevant, of course. My attitude has changed completely since I began writing this piece. I’m looking forward to this summer’s epic combination of football and tennis, to watching tennis and football on English telly all day long, except in the mornings when I can read the English papers about what I’ve watched on English telly the day before. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about: watching telly.