Week two of the Russia World Cup and my enthusiasm abruptly waned after England’s stunning victory against Panama. I’d sat in a meeting with BBC Sport website editors on the previous Friday, and heard a vision of England’s perfect day:
“Imagine… the sun is shining, people are getting together, firing up their barbecues, then England wins and the national mood just… explodes.”
Sunday dawned, the sun was indeed shining and there was the smell of dozens of local barbecues was in the air. England beat Panama by a stunning six goals to one. The national mood exploded, in a measured way, on social media. On telly I noticed the pundits still refrained saying things like “it’s coming home” or referring to 1966. They are all old enough to know better.
It’s a fact that there are tens of thousands of under 25s who haven’t experienced a big England success on the national stage. This World Cup could either be an ecstatic experience for them, or their rude introduction to loving a national side that never goes all the way (except in 1966, of course).
We all had a little taste of it on Thursday, when Gareth Southgate played his B side against Belgium. Both teams had qualified and it was only a matter of playing for first or second in their group. The outcome would decide their paths through the tournament and Southgate seemed to have decided placing second would do very nicely for England. Both team made eight changes but it seemed to hurt England more.
The result was one of the dullest matches I’ve ever half-watched. As Channel 4 put in nicely on Twitter: “Switch over to Grand Designs after the match where you can watch actual paint dry.”
It all hinges on Tuesday’s match against Colombia for England. If England lose, they’re knocked out of the tournament and Southgate will always be remembered for ruining the country’s chances by second-guessing fate. If they win, they have an easier route to the semi-final than if they’d played Japan (they’ll meet either Switzerland or Sweden) and he’ll be hailed as a genius.
Only time will tell, which is one of the enduring charms of football. All the preparation and skill only gets you so far; it always comes down to what happens on the pitch and luck, momentum and chance have a funny way of changing the tune. Can’t wait to see what song we’re all singing after Tuesday’s game.