The 2018 World Cup: A (Anyone But England) Final Word

by | Jul 29, 2018

England did pretty well in the World Cup finals. And…er…that’s it.

They beat Tunisia, Panama and Sweden, drew with James Rodriguez-less Colombia and their second-string lost to Belgium’s second-string, curiously (almost ironically) the key result in their progress to their semi-final, which they lost to Croatia. And an understrength side lost the bronze medal match to an understrength Belgium.

There were two other wins. Their first-ever World Cup finals’ penalty shoot-out, which showed admirable mental strength. And captain Harry Kane’s Golden Boot as the finals’ top-scorer. On-and-off the pitch, just about everyone directly connected with the team did themselves justice. The Daily Mail’s Charles Sale called this “far exceeding expectations,” which makes you wonder how low those expectations were.

So, where did the idea take hold that ‘it’ was ‘COMIN’ ‘OME!!!”? That it was de rigueur for England fans to lean into various camera lenses to shout/scream this at disturbingly aggressive high volume, often with disturbingly aggressive facial contortions (hello, Ross Kemp).

One problem with assessing England’s World Cup is that it involves nuance…and that some England fans’ main problem with ‘nuance’ is that it’s a French word. The England team started VERY well. But, away from the team, the old sneering, supremacist, foreigner-belittling, entitlement and arrogance re-emerged, ‘inspiring’ dispiriting but sometimes dispiritingly justifiable “anyone-but-England” (ABE) attitudes from its targets.

That there was less of both than before is to the immense credit of this England set-up. ABEs by instinct will always cheer England’s opposition because…England. ABEs via experience could acknowledge this England team’s positive qualities. I was even pleased England won THAT penalty shoot-out, after Colombia’s grappling, gracelessness. So, it was sad that the old arrogance and pettiness returned after that victory.

England reached their second semi-final in 14 World Cup finals tournaments on foreign soil. But they did so in much the same way as they’d reached previous last-sixteens and last-eights, beating teams against whom they’d be pre-match favourites and losing to the first really good team they met.

They played refreshing football. However, they’ve played refreshingly before. Unrealistic expectations of previous teams masked England’s really quite good performances in 1998 and 2002. And England being really GOOD in Euro 2004 remains less acknowledged than it should be.

And Gareth Southgate. What a nice, young man. Humble, articulate. Well-dressed, too. But despite the later misplaced hype around him, he shipped some ridiculous criticism for the eminently sensible tactic of aiming for ‘the easy half ’ of the knockout stages, while giving most of his squad game time, in case injuries and suspensions kicked-in.

The Mail’s perma-boorish Martin Samuel believed England threw their group game with Belgium. “Still think this was a clever idea, Gareth?” screamed the headline. “It’s the World Cup not school sports day” screamed the sub-headline, directly quoting Samuel, who added: “with so much positive momentum coming into this game, it feels like a trick has been missed and many experienced former professionals were saying as much.”

(Piers Morgan tweeted: “Why couldn’t we just pick our best available team to win every game, like Venables did in Euro ’96, when we nearly, and should have, won it?” Well…because England weren’t guaranteed a knockout-stage spot until their last group game…you colossal fagpacket).

One “experienced former professional” was saying nothing of the sort. ITV’s Gary Neville suggested: “We should now be the most positive we’ve ever been. This is not being arrogant, not being ignorant. We could lose against Colombia, no doubt.

“In 1990, we had Cameroon and Belgium to get to a World Cup semi-final, we’ve now got Colombia and Sweden or Switzerland to get to a World Cup semi-final. ‘98, Argentina, round two. 2002, Brazil, with Rivaldo. 2006, Ronaldo, Portugal. 2010 Germany. 2014, Italy and Uruguay in the group. A World Cup semi-final (by beating) Colombia, Sweden and Switzerland? What a chance.”

This hit a bed-of-nails on the head. But elsewhere, small signs were there. Spain were then the likeliest semi-final opponents. The Mirror, however, headlined their back page “this way to the final.” Spain’s penalty shoot-out loss to Russia cleared that “way to the final.” And England fans everywhere gained new confidence.

The clearest manifestation of this was the afore-mentioned “IT’S COMIN’ ‘OME!!!” This was transparently different to the refrain of the Lightning Seeds’ 1996 song ‘Three Lions.’ There, ‘Football’s coming home’ was a nod to to the official Euro ’96 slogan, not an arrogant prediction of an England victory…unless Uefa knew different. “IT’S COMIN’ ‘OME!!!” was closer to arrogance.

The Sun’s matchday front-page headline was “Go Kane,” (co-caine, geddit?) adding that Colombia “gave us Shakira, great coffee and…er…other stuff.” Colombia’s UK ambassador, the appropriately-named Nestor Osorio Londono, thought it “rather sad” that the Sun would “target a country and continue to stigmatise it with a completely unrelated issue.” The Sun thought it “suitably light-hearted, considering the context,” and “hoped” it would boost Colombia’s coffee industry.

‘Target’ seemed strong. But the Sun was wrong. There was nothing “suitable” about it. And ABE attitudes grow on a multitude of such small unsuitability. This site’s editor, Ian King, tweeted that he would “never dream of speaking about other people’s countries the way people speak about mine.” Which is exactly the right attitude. Alas, some England fans, and media, still dream of it and still do it.

Desperately missing the talismanic Rodriguez (a reminder of England’s good fortune with, or good work to prevent, injuries), Colombia took major responsibility for making their game against England among the finals’ worst. England weren’t complete innocents. However, ITV’s commentary-box comedy-duo with two straight men, Clyde Tyldesley and Glenn Hoddle, only had eyes (one each) for one enemy.

“Colombia are at it again, surrounding the referee,” Tyldesley noted. “They’ve lost their heads, they’re saying that Maguire dived,” Hoddle added, as replays confirmed that Maguire dives, embarrassingly. “It might be toe-to-toe, you know,” Tyldesley suggested, pathetically. And despite twice admitting that Maguire hadn’t been touched, Hoddle concluded that he “was very honest about it, he got up and said to the referee ‘no, it’s no penalty.’” So…that’s…alright…then…?

“The referee’s…dealing with two different football cultures,” Tyldesley commented, as Colombian complaints continued. To which culture did he think Maguire belonged, then? And how many non-English voices screamed “**** off” at their telly during this rank professional dishonesty from English commentators?

After the match, even Neville was letting some true feelings slip. “It’s brilliant to see an opposition team suffering,” he said over pictures of despairing Colombians, as Ian Wright snorted with laughter. “I’m not saying that in a nasty way,” he added, fractionally too late. Yes, they and fellow-pundit Lee Dixon took great pains not to look beyond Sweden. But you could almost smell the effort. And the fact that England, even allowing for all Colombia’s crap, played poorly was airbrushed from history.

My sporting focus on July 7th at 3pm, was on another sport, supporting a team in blue-and-yellow that wasn’t Sweden. But, from what I read, England were outstanding, winning at something approaching a canter. ‘It,’ almost everyone seemed to now agree, could really be “coming home.” Then I read that England keeper Jordan Pickford was man-of-the-match. And something didn’t add up.

Having watched the game, I realised that it wasn’t quite the cakewalk twitter had promised. But I saw too how much more convincing England were than at any quarter-final I could remember. Even those they won. The grisly battle with Antonio Rattin’s Argentina in 1966. The momentary prospect of a new world football order after Cameroon went 2-1 up against England in 1990 and could/should have made it 3-1. The nervy 0-0 draw and shoot-out win over Spain in 1996.

Every semi-finalist, however flat their road there, has a right to dream of the final. But despite all the then-recent fuss about it, England being in the ‘easy side of the draw’ was largely forgotten. Ian, again, tweeted perfectly, noting during the France/Belgium semi-final that “both of these teams are so good they should (almost) be a separate weight, like in boxing, to England.”

I certainly felt as if I was watching two separate competitions, with England in some sort of ‘repechage’ (another bl**dy French word). Croatia/England was by yards the best game of the ‘easy side.’ But, in the last 16, Belgium/Japan v. Switzerland/Sweden? France/Argentina alongside Croatia/Denmark? Brazil/Mexico against Colombia/England? Uruguay/Portugal compared to Russia/Spain? Among the quarter-finals too, Brazil/Belgium was demonstrably the best, Russia/Croatia demonstrably the worst.

Yet, my twitter feed was swamped with England fans lacking various degrees of gorm, baying you-know-what. And the confidence was getting nasty. One facebook ‘friend’ happily considered “the unbearable pain this is causing the sour, chip-on-the-shoulder sweaties, paddies and taffs.” Another posted “England winning the World Cup or seeing that prick no longer breathing…now that’s a tough choice, wouldn’t you say?” This was his reaction to Diego Maradona taking ill at Argentina’s vital group game with Nigeria.

“Why can’t an Irishman want England to win the World Cup?” a wise man named Joe Horgan asked in his regular column in the ‘Irish Post’ newspaper. “I want England to win the World Cup.” His (sound) reasoning was: “Gone are the bling, arrogant English with their air of superiority. In their place is a humble, racially-mixed team captained by a man whose family are from Galway.”

Of course, an Irishman CAN want England to win the World Cup. Although an Irish friend was ‘caught’ considering “our chances” outside our Catholic church after the Sweden game, the disapproving noises from attendant Scots and this second-generation Irishman weren’t serious.

Yet Horgan thought it puzzling for someone to “love English football clubs, watch Coronation Street and Eastenders, be fascinated by the Royal Family but hate England’s football team.” This dismally equated not wanting England to win with hating England. It all-but-said that if you didn’t want England to win, you were wrong.

In this, Horgan pre-empted the attitude of more and more English fans before the semi-final, often aggressively manifested, as I found out two evenings after the Sweden game, when my neighbour asked why I was “f***ing wearing that yellow s**t,” pointing at my primrose-and-blue Roscommon Gaelic Football shirt.

Other manifestations of English loss of plot, such as “Waistcoat Wednesday” and renaming Southgate tube station Gareth Southgate for a bit, were harmless fun. But suggestions that ‘Sir Gareth Southgate’ should be a thing were becoming a thing. Reasonable, if you think the honours system is reasonable, for a World Cup-winning manager. Crackpot for a losing semi-finalist, however dapper his waistcoat.

And ITV’s build-up to the Croatia game pushed me to the limit. Southgate’s ability to make Lee Dixon feel calm was portrayed as almost messianic. And the ‘celebrity’ good wishes, Ricky Gervais apart, were painful viewing, with Joanna Lumley’s mockney “cam on, layyyds” even making my telly cringe. The game, meanwhile. Well, Ian covered it here last week. And I couldn’t possibly top his efforts.

The post-match spat between Wright and Roy Keane was great telly, but codswallop debate. Keane was right about some people “getting carried away” and “planning the parades for the final.” But Wright was only getting as ‘carried away’ as any true fan. However, the enduring image was Wright childishly taking the p*ss out of Keane’s Cork accent, egged-on as childishly by Neville. ‘Anyone-but-England,’ explained in an instant.

With football gone on its holibobs again, reasoned assessment of England returned. And signs are good. Possibly the only crimp on England’s 2022 prospects is the finals being in bloody Qatar. The 2022 edition will be in November/December. But Qatari Novembers aren’t English ones, however quickly man-made climate change over the next 52 months might converge northern European and west Asian climates.

The next generation is already emergent. The pathway from under-17 and under-20 to senior teams isn’t as well-laid as that in, say, Gaelic sports, even for world champions at both levels. But the gaps in quality evident in Russia could, perhaps should, be filled from these underage ranks.

But, for now, England did pretty well in the World Cup finals. And…er…that’s still it.