The vast majority of England fans, including myself, were cynical about our chances in Russia 2018. We entered the tournament wounded by a series of huge disappointments. We just knew, we were so sure, that England were going to throw it away, blow it away.
It wasn’t always this bleak, though. We had high hopes once. We even rationalised our optimism by assessing the undeniable quality of our players at club level — branding them our ‘golden generation’. But placing the players upon a pedestal turned out to be a naive mistake that, realistically, only ever stood to dampen our spirits.
This time it was different. We fielded a young, fresh, fairly inexperienced team, guided by an unproven manager. Nobody expected much from England.
Yet for once we surpassed expectations.
Reminiscing About The “Good Old Days”
It’s no secret: throughout the year, fans can’t wait for international breaks to end so that the Premier League can resume.
We’ve learnt the hard way: take our major tournaments too seriously and it’ll only end in disappointment and frustration. It’s felt that way for years.
But watching England felt different this time round. Russia 2018 marked a change in English football. Or rather a reversion — back to the way we preferred it.
We played more attacking football than usual; it was far better to watch. The older fans were likening the performances to our “nearly” team in Italia 1990 — which featured the likes of Gary Linekar, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle, John Barnes, and Stuart Pearce. This was the last time we reached the semi final of a World Cup.
Likewise, people in their late 20s and early 30s — not old enough to remember 1990 — were likening the current squad and their expressive playing style to our Euro 96 campaign. Ex-players frequently remarked how the tournament had that same ‘feel-good’ vibe about it. Gareth Southgate is, of course, the common denominator of both eras.
People around my age realised the significance of this tournament to Southgate, in particular. It was the prospect of redemption for a man who’s entire career up until now has been defined by one moment: a semi-final penalty miss which sent England out to Germany 22 years ago in same tournament that football came home. After decades of being ridiculed, Southgate couldn’t have foreseen that the remainder of his career would be redefined by a snazzy waistcoat… oh, and a great tournament for England, too.
This World Cup undoubtedly brought a strong feeling of nostalgia to England. But it wasn’t just the reminiscing about our past near-misses. It also caught the imagination of the younger generations — particularly teens and early 20’s that are, coincidentally, already obsessed with 90’s music, clothing and culture. Adding the Three Lions song (released in 1996) to their Spotify playlist, and throwing on a baggy, retro Umbro England shirt felt all-too natural. The fan experience was somehow more inclusive than usual.
Up and down the country, games were publicly televised — with hot weather and 90’s classics booming out. It was quite possibly the first time I’d seen both 18 year olds, and 50 year olds, singing and dancing to the same tune — both literally and metaphorically. People were re-connected by some of the very basic elements of British culture — football, drink, and music.
And there’s numerous other reasons why this World Cup struck the right chord for our fans.
Why Our Fans Went Absolutely Crazy
“Why are England fans going crazy?”, the rest of the world asked, as beer was splattered everywhere.
Well, apart from the nostalgic aspect…
1. England, Surprisingly, Weren’t Poor
There was a time where we looked to our players — Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney, Ferdinand — in expectation. This was our ‘golden generation’. This was our time to shine.
But they didn’t. Then they didn’t again.
So what we had going into this tournament was zero expectation. If England were knocked out early on, displaced by Tunisia in 2nd place at the group stage — then we wouldn’t have been surprised. After all, we went out to Iceland at the Euros two years back.
Not everyone believes that England fans think this way. The lyrics to Three Lions, and the fact we were singing it throughout the tournament, should be sufficient enough evidence to convince anyone of our mindset when it comes to international football: we expect our team to let us down.
But if you’re still in doubt, then try to find the official VW adverts for the World Cup from the ITV coverage. Our very own television network mocked our chances of success with a series of shorts featuring an comically overly-hopeful fan. As did everyone and everything on British TV on the lead up to the World Cup. It got to the point where I honestly thought “I really hope the players don’t see all this. It’ll put too much doubt in their minds before they’ve even played a single match”.
So reaching the semi final, unsurprisingly, caused an eruption on an enormous scale — consisting of beer, mainly.
2. Young Fans Discovered England for the First Time
This was really the first time many young fans witnessed a decent show from an England team.
Yes, it was often a perilously fine line between winning and losing (think last minute headers against Tunisia, penalty shootouts, etc). But the fact remains — our underdogs showed more heart and resilience than we’d seen in decades.
Young fans were able to feel something that they’d only felt for club teams up until now: passion and pride. They heard and sung “football’s coming home” for the first time. It was a whole new song, and the birth of a new era for England.
3. We Took to the Players and Manager
Let’s face it — previous England teams were made up of key players that we didn’t like all that much. John Terry and Wayne Rooney are two examples of guys who, put lightly, couldn’t connect with the majority of fans. They weren’t the reflection we wanted to see in ourselves as a nation. They’re certainly weren’t who we wanted to see when we looked for a hero.
Compare them to their 2018 counterparts.
Defensively we had the likes of Harry Maguire and Kieron Trippier — relative unknowns at the start of the tournament. They played their hearts out, deserved all the credit they received, and left the tournament with far more dignity than many of their predecessors with a pedigree. They were inspirational.
Harry Kane, our model professional & poster boy, lead the way. He ignored the barrage of criticism he’s faced since the Euros — the various jokes about free kick and corner taking — and surpassed any of Rooney’s previous World Cup efforts. He collected the Golden Boot to prove it.
This group of players proved they deserved to wear the shirt.
Then there was our conduct. Gareth Southgate and his players were humble throughout the tournament. He maintained that England were simply doing their best with what they had, and were working hard in training. No promises, no hype, no trash talk — just sincerity. After the tournament he reiterated that we’re still off the top teams. England fans responded to the politeness; the very reflection of British culture we really wanted to see all along.
To our surprise, this group of young players and (modest) manager clearly had more belief than they let on to the media. They played with real confidence.
The World Cup That Rekindled The Spirits Of A Nation
Indeed the England fans became increasingly loud & proud as the tournament progressed — mistaken by some opposition fans as “arrogance” or “complacency”.
Those in England at the time know that our cheers had nothing to do with thinking we’re in any way superior to other teams, or entitled to the World Cup. We were simply done with placing faith in prima-donnas, that we previously believed might be capable of rekindling the delights of winning the tournament in 1966.
This time it was more modest. Not 1966, but more 1996 — back when we damn well knew we were let downs and we’d chant about it with self-deprecating pride. The ‘England way’, as I knew it growing up, was restored.
It was great to see us go far in the tournament after starting out with such low expectations. It was a miracle that we drew such ‘easy’ teams in the knock-outs, which then made it a possibility we could win it. It was an amazing feeling that we finally won a penalty shootout and overcame blatant cheating tactics during the Colombia game. We eased past Sweden — which was unlike any significant England match I recall.
We did dream for a moment.
But why not? Nobody in the latter stages of the tournament was unbeatable. This was the best chance England ever had to win the World Cup.
Sadly, we fell short. Worse is that we’ll have to watch replays — perhaps for the next 28 years — of that one attempt Kane didn’t convert. Or that time Stones was caught slightly napping. It’s yet another another oh-so-near.
The rest of the world seemed pretty pleased to see England fall. But they obviously missed what this tournament stood for — here in England.
In the new age of hipster culture and social media pretentiousness — post London riots, and Brexit — this was the summer where people in England let their hair down and came together. A disunited country was in unison for a change. It connected the past and the present, the young and old. It helped baron pubs temporarily thrive again. It made everyone equal, as a fan in the same shirt.
People saw a reflection of themselves in this revived England team, in some way or another. And at the end of it all we were left with pride, hope, and a summer to remember.
We lost that semi-final. But trust me, football still came home.
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