England are going to the World Cup, but don’t hold your breath
Put out more flags. Dust down the red and white jester’s hat. Root out the gumshield, the crumpled Yekaterinburg metro map. And prepare to head once more into that strangely gruelling territory between bruised and fearful cynicism and the eternal quiver of tournament hope.
England’s footballers booked their place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia after surely the most meandering, flaccid qualification victory yet devised by any England team. Slovenia were beaten by Harry Kane’s late goal last Thursday but make no mistake – this was both a dreadful game of football and a numbing spectacle.
Victory may have sealed qualification, but it deflated any realistic expectations of what might happen when England get there. This should concern the Football Association. There are only so many times even England fans will be prepared to pay £40 ($53) for the pleasure of throwing paper aeroplanes at the pitch.
The challenge now for England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, is to produce a team that people actually want to watch. In their current guise, watching England is like watching a 12-round undercard split decision wrestle-off between a pair of ponderous overweight taxi drivers. Success for this team would involve simply playing with a little freedom, exploring their own limits and refusing to leave the competition until they have at least been beaten by a demonstrably superior team. Score some goals. Produce at least one performance that lets everyone feel giddy and stupid and deluded for four days in June.
There is a wider issue here about international football itself. When England’s away fans in Malta last
month sang “we’re fucking shit” they weren’t angry or incensed or spoiling for a fight. They were taking the mickey out of the whole thing: England, us, them, the enduring disjunct between a domestic league of such screeching urgency and a national team who have withered in its shadow.
Take note, Gareth. It is when they stop booing you really want to start worrying. England will travel to Russia with hope. But not much of it.