England has often hoped: pretty much every time we’ve qualified for a major tournament, in fact. England has sometimes expected, going back as far as 1805 and a tricky away fixture against a combined Franco-Spanish side.
But surely, England has never yearned like it does now.
This time, more than any other time… for once, the cliché seems neither overblown nor hackneyed. This England side is gathering momentum with every game: competent in the group stage, seeing off their Germany-shaped hoodoo in the round of 16, and demolishing Ukraine in the quarter finals. They are now just two matches away from a triumph of which no one younger than 55 has seen the like.
That triumph would be momentous in any circumstances, but after the past 18 months it would represent something exponentially more special still.
The cost of the pandemic has not just been the lives lost. It has also been the lives disrupted, the mass psychological trauma, the ebb of hope and the flow of fear.
Now, at last, we are emerging blinking into the sunlight, and for the moment at least our tentative dreams of a better future are coalesced around Gareth Southgate and his team: a side in which we can see the best reflections of ourselves.
A side full of men who play for each other and subsume their individual ambitions for that of the collective. A side which makes us proud to be English not just through the sharing of nationality, but of values too.
Much like the hot tub Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are in, the country’s mood towards England is bubbling up
Credit: Instagram/Marcus Rashford
Only the England football team can do this. The rugby players and cricketers who ruled the world in 2003 and 2019 were cut from the same cloth – decent, driven, ambitious, united – and their triumphs were lauded and justifiably popular.
It was no accident that their respective talismans, Jonny Wilkinson and Ben Stokes, won Sports Personality of the Year on the back of those triumphs. But neither sport has the same critical mass and cultural cut-through that football does.
The fortunes of the national side and nation have been intertwined more often than not. The finest hour of all, the World Cup victory of 1966, was final proof that we had come through the devastation of the war and the privations of the Fifties. Here at last was a country which was optimistic, modern and stylish again – a country basking in the Swinging Sixties.
A few months beforehand, Time magazine had described London as “bursting into bloom. It swings; it is the scene”, and the previous year David Bailey’s Box of Pin-Ups photographic series had focussed on stars such as Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Vidal Sassoon and the Kray twins.
Will the Three Lions achieve the lofty heights of 1966 again?
Credit: AP Photo, file
At the following World Cup, Mexico 1970, football showed its influence in another way entirely. England, second favourites, lost to West Germany in the quarter finals, and four days later Harold Wilson’s Labour government was defeated in the general election by Ted Heath’s Conservatives. England had been 2-0 up in Leon and cruising before losing 3-2: Wilson had been comfortably ahead in the polls until very late in the campaign.
Many in the Labour hierarchy saw a direct connection between the two defeats: Tony Crosland, later Foreign Secretary, blamed the election loss “on a mix of party complacency and the disgruntled Match of the Day millions”.
The England side of the Nineties reached two major semi-finals, those of Italia 90 and Euro 96. If the first came at a time of transition – the Cold War ending and a recession just about to bite – the second was firmly ensconced as part of Cool Britannia.
What Time had identified in 1966, Newsweek now did 30 years on with its cover story “London Rules”: and less than a year later Geri Halliwell would be wearing that iconic Union Jack dress at the Brits, Vanity Fair would put Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit on their cover, and Tony Blair would be sweeping into Downing Street on a tsunami of hope and his own promises of a bright new day dawning.
Euro 96 came about when Cool Britannia was making a splash
Credit: Stu Forster/Getty Images
The only sporting event which can have quite the same effect as the football team doing well is a home Olympics. London 2012 took place against a backdrop not so much gloomy as crepuscular.
The ripples of the financial crash four years before were still being felt through government austerity programmes, and there were widespread grumbles at pretty much everything involved in hosting the Games: the cost, the weather, the prospect of terrorist attacks, and just the general British propensity to cock things up.
But from the moment that Danny Boyle’s magnificent, madcap, funny, moving opening ceremony began, this seemed a country not just finding its mojo again, but wondering why it had lost it for so long.
For the fortnight of the Games, London was a magical, charmed place: a place where strangers chatted happily, where the trains ran on time, where sell-out crowds cheered every competitor to the rafters, and where the soldiers performed security checks with smiles for wide-eyed children and pride in their professionalism. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, bliss was it in that summer to be alive, but to be in London was very heaven.
And now here we are, back to Wembley for a Wednesday semi-final against Denmark and, who knows, even a Sunday final against Italy or Spain. Winning one or even both of those matches won’t by itself make things better.
As Diego Maradona said of winning the 1986 World Cup: “We didn’t change the world, we didn’t bring down the price of bread. It was a lovely thought that football players can solve people’s problems. I wish we could. We’d all be better off.”
Luke Shaw is all smiles after England’s win over Ukraine
Credit: Instagram/England Football Team
But what victory would give us is a sense of hope in fearful times and solidarity in atomised ones: a belief that if our team can do it then so can we, for why else do we will them on with such fervour unless at some level we feel our fates joined with theirs?
For so long, we have been like the protagonists of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, telling each other stories while the plague raged outside: yet the world which came after that was in every way better, the Renaissance following on from the Dark Ages.
This, too, is the essence of hope: that the new normal is not a return to the old one, but an improvement on it. Sport is not just about the single moment in front of us, a snapshot divorced from any other context: it’s layers on layers, it’s history both individual and collective, it’s the arc of lifetimes bulging with Kipling’s twin impostors. Tomorrow is always another day.
Three years ago at the World Cup, Southgate said: “We are a team that represents modern England, and in England we’ve spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is. Of course, first and foremost we will be judged on football results. But we have a chance to affect other things that are even bigger.”
It was true then. It is 10 times as true now. As things stand, restrictions in England are due to end on July 19. But if at some stage on the night of Sunday July 11 Harry Kane lifts the Henri Delaunay trophy, good luck getting people to wait an extra week.
That will be Freedom Day right there, in every way.