There are no St George flags draped from windows or fluttering from cars in my street. A sign of creeping gentrification, perhaps. But there are six white transit vans parked down the road and not one is flying the England flag. The 2014 World Cup is upon us, but you wouldn’t know it. There’s no World Cup fever. Not even a slightly raised temperature. All those dashed dreams and missed penalties have taken their toll. England no longer expects.
At every major international football tournament there is an anguished debate in this country about whether England’s footballers can expunge all those years of hurt – 48 years and counting – or whether they’ll wilt under the weight of national expectations. We fret over their mental fragility. We pray for their metatarsals. We fear that they will probably succumb, as they usually do, to the inevitable heartache of the penalty shoot-out.
I’ve never been convinced that the players buckle under the ‘weight of expectation’. What expectation? When did the nation ever expect anything other than a plucky quarter-final defeat? Sure, there are always some poor deluded souls whose pro-Ingerland optimism borders on psychosis. And it’s true that expectation levels were raised throughout the Sven era from 2001 to 2006 when a crop of half-decent players was rashly heralded as the ‘Golden Generation’. But most football fans are world-weary realists. We’ll wave the flags and roar our support for the Three Lions. But it’s more in hope than expectation.
England’s performances at major tournaments have been steadily getting worse since Euro 2004. Sven’s gamble in taking two half-fit strikers – Rooney and Owen – to Germany in 2006 backfired badly. Failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was followed by a wretched series of performances in South Africa. It was blessed relief when Germany finally put Capello’s disjointed team out of its misery at Bloemfontein. England’s Euro 2012 campaign hardly set the pulses racing, either. Although we went out the traditional English way – death by penalties – there was nothing heroic about the defeat to Italy. No Dunkirk spirit. No Terry-Butcher-with-bandaged-head rearguard action. It was a just a dull, dispiriting Euroshambles. In the era of tiki-taka, false nines and inside-out wingers, English football was looking anachronistic. It is football from the ‘dark ages’, as Gary Lineker described it. Ball retention was wretched, the tactics were one-dimensional and there was a dearth of creativity.
Unsurprisingly, England travelled to Brazil with almost zero levels of expectation back home. The Golden Generation has gone, mostly put out to pasture. This is an inexperienced squad that is notably short of world-class players. In fact, for the first time in many years, there is no prospective Messiah. Steven Gerrard’s joints are creaking and Ross Barkley is probably still too green. Wayne Rooney, for so long the tabula rasa on to which English dreams were projected, is now widely regarded as a spent force. The injuries to Theo Walcott, Andros Townsend and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have not provoked the same outpourings of national anguish that we saw over Beckham and Rooney’s broken toes.