The World Cup has united the na­tion: en­joy it while it lasts

The World Cup has united the na­tion: en­joy it while it lasts

The Guardian - Journal - - Front Page - Gaby Hinsliff

There is no such thing as the Bri­tish dream. Or at least, that’s the les­son drawn from years of clunky po­lit­i­cal at­tempts to ar­tic­u­late it; to cre­ate a ver­sion of the ro­man­tic story Amer­ica tells about it­self, an iden­tity strong enough to hold a splin­ter­ing na­tion to­gether. On pa­per, Ed Miliband’s at­tempt while Labour leader sounded rea­son­able enough. The idea of a Bri­tish promise – a deep, shared sense that chil­dren’s lives should be bet­ter than those of their par­ents – cer­tainly de­scribed some­thing miss­ing from the post-crash na­tion. Yet it felt hor­ri­bly clumsy for rea­sons that were hard to pin down at the time – and which, for me, fi­nally swam into fo­cus only ear­lier this sum­mer when I read the story Ra­heem Ster­ling told the Play­ers’ Tri­bune about his child­hood.

The sort of steady eco­nomic progress down the gen­er­a­tions that Miliband talked about is more of an ex­pec­ta­tion than a dream, some­thing we’d come to take for granted and are now en­raged at hav­ing lost. But Ster­ling’s life story? Now that’s a Bri­tish dream, how­ever it ul­ti­mately ended on the pitch.

Born in Ja­maica, he came to Eng­land at the age of five, three years af­ter his fa­ther’s mur­der. His mum worked as a cleaner while putting her­self through col­lege and had no choice but to take the chil­dren with her on the early morn­ing shifts, wak­ing them at 5am and rop­ing them into scrub­bing toi­lets. Later, once the young Ra­heem had been scouted by QPR, he and his older sis­ter would take three dif­fer­ent buses across Lon­don ev­ery Satur­day just to get to train­ing, then his sis­ter would wait pa­tiently for hours be­fore the long trek home. Ster­ling’s mother came here with noth­ing, and now she’s the di­rec­tor of a nurs­ing home while her son plays for his coun­try.

Or take mid­fielder Dele Alli’s tri­umph over a dif­fi­cult child­hood, es­tranged from his birth par­ents and drift­ing into gang ac­tiv­ity. The kid who honed his skills in a car park us­ing bikes for goal­posts has now scored in a World Cup; how many lit­tle boys with tough lives fan­ta­sise about that? And while barely one in a mil­lion will come any­where near it, that in a way is the point. That’s what makes it a dream – a wild and crazy thing that al­most cer­tainly won’t come true, but pro­vides a tiny glim­mer of light in the dark­ness any­way.

Dreams come from hard­ship, not com­fort, be­cause to dream is to es­cape. Foot­ball has al­ways played this role in many fans’ lives, but this tour­na­ment has al­lowed the rest of us to un­der­stand that, per­haps more deeply than be­fore.

Eng­land’s past few World Cup runs have been all about ex­pec­ta­tion, fol­lowed by sour in­qui­si­tions when the team failed to meet it. But this one was made mag­i­cal by the fact that we no longer ex­pected any­thing. We’d re­signed our­selves to be­ing rubbish again and then some­how mirac­u­lously man­aged not to be, which is why de­feat, when it came, was for once more sad than en­rag­ing.

Like the freak June heat­wave, it has had that gen­uinely dream­like qual­ity: a sense that any minute now we’re go­ing to wake up, be­cause this can’t be real.

Sum­mers aren’t nor­mally like this. Foot­ball isn’t nor­mally like this. The only thing res­o­lutely liv­ing down to ex­pec­ta­tions now is pol­i­tics, but the blessed respite of not hav­ing to think about that while the foot­ball was on was a gift in it­self. Even peo­ple who don’t give a stuff about sport nor­mally have been sucked in, be­cause like the 2012 Olympics it was about much more than sport.

Fan­doms can be ex­clu­sive at times, re­sent­ing those who jump on the band­wagon. But this tour­na­ment has been dif­fer­ent. As man­ager Gareth South­gate said, his was a di­verse squad in which kids from ev­ery race and back­ground can see them­selves. But the in­clu­siv­ity doesn’t stop there. Some­thing about South­gate him­self, ten­derly hug­ging his young play­ers and earnestly dis­cussing their feel­ings, made it all right for those nor­mally put off by all the testos­terone.

Here was more than one def­i­ni­tion of English­ness: St Ge­orge’s flags and God Save the Queen for some, but also waist­coats and self-dep­re­cat­ing jokes and pic­tures of the team play­ing like big kids on blow-up uni­corns in a swim­ming pool. It’s this kind of English iden­tity that has lately be­come lost in the shout­ing, some­thing elas­tic and gen­er­ous enough to be what­ever the English need it to be.

But if the foot­ball re­ally didn’t move you af­ter all this, then this ex­tra­or­di­nary sum­mer has also given us the Bri­tish cave-divers in Thai­land. Rick Stan­ton and John Volan­then were mid­dleaged men you wouldn’t look twice at in a crowd, yet pos­sessed of such ex­tra­or­di­nary skill and val­our that a na­tion glowed with bor­rowed pride when they helped turn what looked like in­evitable dis­as­ter into suc­cess. Both the res­cue ef­fort and the foot­ball were a re­minder of the as­ton­ish­ing power of team­work, of hu­mil­ity and muck­ing in rather than let­ting egos run ram­pant.

And that spirit of to­geth­er­ness was in­fec­tious. How of­ten do 30 mil­lion of us gather around the telly all at once? Yet the semi-fi­nal lured even surly teens from their bed­rooms to the fam­ily sofa, and gave lit­tle ones the il­licit thrill of stay­ing up long past bed­time. For once, the de­vices we’re used to blam­ing for stressed and frag­mented lives helped make it an even more gen­uinely col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. Fam­ily What­sApp groups pinged like crazy through the match, strangers shared ev­ery tense mo­ment on Twit­ter.

And when Kieran Trip­pier scored, prompt­ing thou­sands at open-air screen­ings to hurl their drinks into the sky, im­ages of ex­u­ber­ant crowds lit up phone screens. Even when we lost, peo­ple hes­i­tated be­fore pil­ing in to crit­i­cise: “but they’re still so young”, “they tried so hard”. The morn­ing af­ter felt punc­tured but wist­ful, like com­ing home from a beach hol­i­day with sand still just about be­tween your toes. “Let’s keep this unity alive,” tweeted de­fender Kyle Walker. But can we?

One great sport­ing sum­mer doesn’t make Brexit go away, re­verse the Win­drush scan­dal, pa­per over the cracks in Bri­tish so­ci­ety and craft a new na­tional iden­tity overnight. It’s foot­ball, not a mir­a­cle.

But if dreams of­ten turn out to be of lim­ited prac­ti­cal use in the cold light of day, then it’s ar­guably un­fair to ex­pect oth­er­wise. We don’t dream in or­der to change a harsh re­al­ity, but be­cause we crave re­lief from it. And if this team can’t pos­si­bly pro­vide all the an­swers around na­tional iden­tity, then at least for a few pre­cious weeks they let us stop hys­ter­i­cally over­think­ing the ques­tion. Not ev­ery­thing has to mean some­thing. Some­times it’s enough just to live for the mo­ment, how­ever fleet­ing; for the sheer tran­scen­dent joy of Eng­land, team or coun­try, feel­ing good about it­self for once.


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