Given how apprehensive the football watching public were about staging the greatest sporting event on the planet in a country with…shall we say, political issues, Russia’s World Cup has passed off almost entirely without incident. Not only that, but the first fortnight of the competition has been an absolute blast, with thrills, spills and a raft of big teams struggling to impress. It’s also a return back to that familiar suffocating intensity that follows the England national side around whenever a major tournament rolls around.
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It’s difficult to know where to place expectations for Gareth Southgate’s side this time. England are certainly playing better, more exciting football than they have at perhaps any point since Euro ’96 brought football home. But (and it’s important to point this out), it’s England. Last night’s seemingly calculated defeat to Belgium has given them a slightly route through the knockout stages, with Colombia waiting on Tuesday, but there remains an Arsenal-like fragility to this team that simply won’t go away, not when it feels like all it’ll take to scupper their plans is one well-organised, committed and ruthless side.
It’s nigh-on impossible not to feel somewhat cynical about this bi-yearly circus, even if England do genuinely seem to be in better shape than they have been for some time. But as a Manchester United fan, that cynicism is seemingly exacerbated, purely because it’s tough to feel connected to a team that has vilified players from this club.
It’s deeper than the odd example here and there, but the nation’s vilification of David Beckham in the wake of his red card against Argentina in France 98 is an example of how quickly England can turn on its own. The image of West Ham United fans hanging an effigy wearing his no.7 shirt is infamous (hilariously, looking at old photos, the number and name on the shirt on the mannequin look like they’ve been stitched on. You don’t want to waste money when making an effigy, clearly); United then arrived at Upton Park for the first away game of the treble season to have the team bus attacked by angry Hammers fans, intent on making their anger at his sending off known.
United, of course, rallied around Beckham, and the player was a key cog in that season’s triumphs, but this merely strengthened the feeling in the club’s fanbase that it really was a case of United vs The World. United first, England second (if at all) has been a common theme for some time.
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Sir Alex Ferguson was exceptional at creating a siege mentality in that sense when he was manager, and supporters have had a lingering disconnect from the England team for some time. A good part of that could be a result of the increasingly overreactive and aggressive way in which the national team circus operates. Forget club loyalties; it’s particularly unedifying to see the way in which players like Raheem Sterling are targeted when they don’t perform, and the intense focus and sometimes unrealistic pressure placed upon the team to succeed. Of course, playing for United brings its own pressure, but rarely does ever reach levels as seemingly suffocating as the national side experiences.
Of course, part of it could just be down to the fact that following United, even during this last half-decade of flux, is just a more edifying experience than keeping a keen interest in the Three Lions. Coming at it from the perspective of someone who hails from the small county affixed to England’s west border, the scrutiny and expectation placed on the national side is often a sight to behold, and at other times, truly and needlessly overwhelming. Lots of English United fans find themselves struggling to care about England’s fortunes, and perhaps it’s not that difficult to see why.