England, This Time Without the Hype

Why the normal fever pitch surrounding the Three Lions has been so subdued

Is there a nation more soccer-obsessed than England? Our fans will travel the length of the country to stand in the rain and watch their team fail to register a shot on goal as they lose 0–1 on a Tuesday night. They will kick chunks out of one another during amateur Sunday games played on fields with goalmouths so muddy the goalkeepers may as well be wearing galoshes. And then there is John Anthony Portsmouth Football Club Westwood.

Unfortunately for the English, our devotion hasn’t exactly been rewarded with success. Since lifting the World Cup in 1966, our best showing in a major tournament has been reaching the semis of Italia ’90, and Euro ’96 as hosts. During that 48-year drought, we’ve crashed out on penalties on six depressing occasions, winning just one shootout. The day after our shambolic 4–1 defeat to Germany at South Africa 2010, I was on a train to London when the conductor came onto the loudspeaker, not to inform us of the upcoming stops, but to whinge about the previous night’s performance and reminisce about the 1966 team. To this day, I still haven’t heard a man sound so crestfallen.

This combination of passion and failure ensures that each time the World Cup rolls around, the hype surrounding the English team borders on hysteria. The media and the public alike whip up a frenzy of excitement and anticipation that this tournament may finally wash away all those years of hurt. The only question asked by long-suffering fans is “will we win it all?”—not whether we’ll get out of the group stage or make the semifinals. And everyone from radio presenters to politicians to other sports commentators find themselves trying to answer that question.

The hype drives non-soccer fans mad, sometimes resulting in an “anyone but England” attitude among the non-believers, who just want the hysteria to come to an end as quickly as possible.

But this year, something is different. Where is the hype? With less than a week until the World Cup kicks off, things are surprisingly placid. I have yet to see a single England flag flying from an open car window in a manner that places support of the team ahead of fuel efficiency. Unlike in 2002, when David Beckham broke his metatarsal in the run up to the tournament, the public has not been exhorted to pray for anybody’s foot to heal. Our newspapers and tabloids are paying surprisingly scant attention to a mainstay of their front pages: the WAGs (wives and girlfriends of the players). And barely any effort seems to have gone into the official England World Cup song—an utterly uninspiring cover of a Take That tune.

The main reason is probably that this England team is just not that good. Experts are united in their belief that the “golden generation” has passed and that this lot will do well just to make it out of a tricky group. One betting company is offering odds as low as 100–1 on England lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy. Other potential factors include the attention placed on the controversy of Brazil’s social problems and the issues they raise during the World Cup, and a potential soccer hangover resulting from a long, exciting Premier League season.

Perhaps the low expectations will work in our favor and the reduced pressure will allow us to play the kind of free flowing soccer English fans have been craving for so long. However, as that first game against Italy nears, I’m sure the hype will ramp up. Maybe the hysteria won’t reach the fever pitch of 2002 or 2006, but I’m already buzzing with excitement and optimism, and before too long I’m sure the soccer haters will be running for cover. Can we win it all? Ask an Englishman now and the answer will be “no.” Ask the same Englishman as he stands in a pub at 10:59 p.m. on the Saturday night when the Italy game is about to kick off and I’d be very surprised if his answer—fueled by pints of lager and inspired by camaraderie—is anything but a resounding “yes!”