With England opening their Euro 2012 campaign against the old enemy France today, you might expect the nation to be a sea of St Georges flags, with commuters heading to work humming the team’s latest pop anthem.
But this afternoon’s match is the culmination of an inauspicious build-up that has seen a lukewarm reception for the new manager Roy Hodgson, controversy over Rio Ferdinand’s snub, injuries to key players and fears that the entire tournament could be marred by racist fans in the host nations, Poland and Ukraine. The tournament also suffers the misfortune of sharing the summer with two once-in-a-lifetime national events: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics.
As if to symbolise the relative apathy of the nation over Euro 2012 compared with the fervour generated by most major tournaments, England’s official anthem - “Sing 4 England” by Sky Sports pundit Chris Kamara – failed even to make the top 200 in yesterday’s chart.
“There certainly haven’t been as many column inches bigging up England’s chances, because everyone’s attention is on other things,” said Kevin Miles, international director of the Football Supporters Federation, who is one of only about 5,000 England fans in Poland and Ukraine. “I tuned into Radio 5 the other day and instead of talking football they had live coverage of the Tae-Kwon-do, simply because it’s an Olympic sport.”
Back at home, the usual flowering of St George’s flags from the homes and cars of the faithful is yet to materialise in most places. In London their places have mostly been taken by Union Jacks for the Jubilee.
Nina Lambert, 40, owner of The Flag Workshop, a leading UK supplier of flags said that enthusiasm was miserably low for this stage in a major tournament: “Usually we see demand close to games. So far one person has phoned up and asked about flags for the Euros,” she said.
Charlie Barlow, 55, the owner of Barmy Flags reported orders down by a half on the World Cup.
“With everything else happening like the Olympics and the Jubilee, it’s crept up on us,” he said. “People are leaving it until the last minute. I’m sure if we beat France we’ll see a spike in sales.”
One place you will find the red and white bunting are the supermarkets and service stations. But precious few are stocking up on beers, crisps and vuvuzelas.
“I won’t be watching it,” said Tom Kane, 55, a caretaker from north London passing by the football-themed offers in his local Tesco. “I usually watch England at the big tournaments but there’s a lot of gloom around with the recession and people just aren’t getting excited.”
Jason Harris, 27, an electrician from Rochester, was only slightly more enthusiastic. “I’ll go the pub to watch it, but I don’t expect we’ll win. It’s more an excuse to catch up with mates really. We have a crap manager who’s made all the wrong decisions, so I think we’ll only be meeting three times.”
You can hardly blame them. In a year when bookmakers Paddy Power have erected a 100ft tall statue of “Roy the Redeemer” on the coast at Dover, appealing for “divine intervention” for the England team, the days of Three Lions on My Shirt, Jules Rimet and the adoration of David Beckham’s right foot seem long gone.
The travelling England supporters, typically the most resistant to the hype of a major tournament, already appear to have resigned themselves to the quarter-finals. At best. But there is still a shred of hope, if not for England, then for the place of football in the national consciousness.
“Once again you look at the England team and think they could beat anyone on the day or lose to anyone on the day,” said Miles. “The Olympics are a one-one off. You can buy Team GB kits in the shops this year, but when the Games go elsewhere people will lose interest. But fans will always buy the England kit.”
Come five o’clock this afternoon and kick-off against France, for 90 minutes at least football will regain its place in the nation’s heart. Who knows, we might even win.