Does it get any better than this? I watched last night’s dismal match at a friend’s house, the atmosphere becoming more and more animated and excitable as the night wore on. At half time there was an audible buzz of failure in the air. By full time people we were indulging in a collective orgy of despair.
We were on our feet, shouting and gesticulating, competing with each other to articulate the bitterest piece of invective, or the best verbal skewering of Gerrard’s wastefulness, Heskey’s farcical ineptness and Rooney’s unfeasible collapse in form. Honestly, we were throwing the biggest pity party ever, a total festival of disappointment.
This morning I consumed the sports pages of every paper I could get hold of, desperate for every last drop of analysis about why England are so bloody hopeless at football. I couldn’t get enough. If anyone has anything to add on the subject of why Capello thought bringing on the hapless Shaun Wright Phillips to replace the hapless Aaron Lennon was a good idea then bring it on. I want to read it.
Yep, England have arrived at the world cup riding a tide of (largely) unjustifiable optimism and played like shit. And doesn't it feel great? It’s a national addiction, a cycle of self-harm that the team and fans are locked into like an abusive relationship. It’s almost as if we would be disappointed were they not to let us down.
After following some seven world cups now where England have competed I can honestly say it’s always been thus. Secretly, this is how we like it. We get off on this international, televised public humiliation. Maybe it somehow atones for our historical sins. Or maybe it simply allows us to seek refuge in one enormous, collective bout of self-pity every four years.
It’s an abysmal and utterly familiar routine in which we all assume standard roles, like a dysfunctional family meal at Christmas. The tabloids will accuse the players of lack of metal, a deficit of backbone that is an insult to our fine warmongering heritage while the broadsheets genuflect towards more technically sophisticated European rivals. Everyone has their slot in this national farce, including the players who attempt to appear contrite and genuinely humbled for a while before resuming the usual business of getting off with each others girlfriends and having fights in nightclubs.
Fabio Capello, though, isn’t so well acquainted and seems genuinely befuddled by the swift degeneration of his squad. Previous managers have accepted their role with good grace. Taylor, Hoddle, Keegan, McClaren (my god, there’s been so many of them) and even Erikson have slotted into the national mood perfectly, blaming slight injustices and random acts of misfortune on the teams lack of progress. Last night Capello came close to simply saying; “No idea why but they played like shit”.
What happens next? Most likely England will fail to impress against Slovenia but still make it out of the group stage, only to go out against the first decent team they encounter. They will, no doubt, raise their game sufficiently for us to feel that they could have done much better. This is important. There has to be some hope. Maybe too there will be a piece of outrageous bad luck – a disallowed goal, a penalty given against us or, most likely, a red card – thus adding the requisite element of cosmic injustice to our dismal lot. There is, of course, the slim chance that, as in 1990, we might turn it around, have a decent run and produce some good football along the way. At the moment the only person who looks like being able to help us do that is on the bench. Joe Cole has been cast in the ultimate role in this tragedy: the potential saviour. He walks amongst us, but he's yet to unzip his track suit.
I prefer to believe in the latter possibility, if only to raise the bar of disappointment a little higher and keep the delicious sense of exasperation going. Honestly, I haven’t felt this bad in years. It’s great.