The furthest England have progressed in a World Cup on foreign soil was in Italy in 1990. For most football fans under 40 in this country, memories of the tournament have been created in hindsight in much the same manner as the effect of looking at childhood photographs. Italia ’90 was full of iconic moments that are firmly imprinted on the public consciousness and subsequent World Cups, while not entirely without highlights, have had nothing like the lasting impact of that golden summer.
Gareth Southgate was hardly the most exciting choice to replace Sam Allardyce in charge of England and he was widely considered a company man, as uncontroversial a figure as the FA could find in the wake of a scandal. Against the odds, Southgate has got his young team playing attacking, progressive football that silenced the doubters during the first half against Tunisia. While it is undoubtedly true that the team faded somewhat as the match wore on, the same can be said of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side at times and, had chances been taken early in the first half, it would not have required a winner in injury time. The fact that it did simply shows that there is the kind of character in the squad that has often been lacking in previous tournaments.
The most frustrating aspect of all this has been the response to the victory from some sections of the press, not dissimilar to that which Bobby Robson faced in 1990. It is never easy to break down teams with little intent on attacking and yet the sneers and cynicism from some in the aftermath of a win feels peculiarly British. More than anything, the scorn directed at anyone displaying an ounce of optimism seems to entirely miss the point of what sport is about.
In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “If I want a long boring story with no point to it, I have my life.”
Football is supposed to be fun and it’s hard to know at what point it became such a po-faced, serious endeavour. No team has set the World Cup alight yet and, for half an hour at least, England looked as good as any in the competition. Why shouldn’t fans dream about the possibility of going all the way? It probably isn’t coming home but who cares, can’t the inquest wait until England have actually been eliminated?
Sport, like art, at its best allows us to dream big. England will play Panama on the weekend and are expected to triumph and almost certainly guarantee progress to the next round, something that should not be taken for granted after the debacle in Brazil four years ago. This is a young and inexperienced team so perhaps it’s best temper expectations but where’s the fun in that? People spend thousands of pounds following England, the nation is gripped at home in a way that is rarely a feature of modern television and here are a group of youthful, exuberant footballers who seem to relish representing their country on the greatest stage of all. We should all follow their lead and simply try to enjoy it.