English football finally delivers in Russia 2018

An unprecedented level of engagement made this World Cup one to remember.

As the dust settles on a World Cup, England fans can come away with a rare feeling of pride in their national team, if only to suppress the nagging thoughts of what might have been. There may well be a sense of missed opportunity. It could even be argued that this England team delivered on the expectations of those who recognised their lack of creativity or staying power against quality opposition. As David Baddiel and Frank Skinner perceptively observed, they’ve seen it all before, they just know, they’re so sure.

Except England didn’t throw it away, at least not in the manner that most people expected, given their recent tournament track record. Many people hadn’t seen it before. For me, at least, a lifetime of following England has been rewarded by nothing better than two world cup quarter-final exits, and only one of those has been within living memory. The other was now over a decade ago.

This, then, was something for me to get excited about, and, more importantly, everyone else was getting excited about it as well. It wasn’t just those of us crowded around the screen in the college TV room either. In the last four weeks, this World Cup has been celebrated more than any tournament since Euro 96, mostly because, like 22 years ago, the England team gave the nation something to celebrate.

Reports of the country running out of beer may have come to nothing, but the sight of thousands of plastic-cupped pints being hurled jubilantly into the air, as fan zones up and down the country erupted with every England goal, was certainly a spectacle. People may accuse fans of getting carried away, but the sheer number of fans that did get caught up in the emotion is significant in itself.

Early on, a friend of mine commented that The Lightning Seeds’ ‘Three Lions’ was getting a lot of airtime even by World Cup standards, and after several nights out with clubs virtually playing the song on loop, I was inclined to agree. Add to that TV viewing figures in excess of 26 million (for the semi-final) in a country with a population of around 53 million, and the inexhaustible output of memes relating to newfound cult icon Harry ‘Slab-head’ Maguire, and a picture begins to develop, one of engagement with the England team on a level unprecedented in this generation.

In this way, football has delivered on the promises of Skinner and Baddiel, and finally come home. Not in the way that they meant when they immortalised the phrase, nor in the way that subsequent scores of fans have dared to dream, but in a way that could, and should, be appreciated. I was surprised by the amount of people at the start of the tournament who told me, ‘I don’t like football, but I do like the World Cup’, or, ‘but I want England to do well’. No doubt such people grew in number before this tournament came to an end.

This is surely a good thing. Despite the negative atmosphere surrounding the build-up to the tournament, Russia 2018 will be the best World Cup that many people have ever experienced, England fan or otherwise. This tournament has surpassed expectations, from the underdog storylines to the relative lack of fan trouble. And for fans, the experience will have been all the better for sharing it with more people than ever before: friends, family, followers, people who had forgotten what it was like to cheer a team through the latter stages of a tournament.

From the first World Cup penalty shootout win in their history, to Maguire stamping his name on the New Year’s Honours List with a thumping header against Sweden, England’s class of 2018 have given us memories to add to that tackle by Moore, when Lineker scored, Bobby belting the ball, and Nobby dancing – all the new ones need is for someone to make them rhyme.

To say that football did come home might sound like losers making excuses; realistically, it is. But England’s enthusiasm for this World Cup was a great consolation prize.

Expect the same again in four years’ time? An England fan knows better than to dare to dream, at least until the first kick of the ball.