D J Taylor: I hope England are back home as soon as possible

Everything that happens in football can be tracked back to that long afternoon at Wembley in 1966
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The Independent Online

There are still 24 hours to go, of course, but even at this stage in the proceedings, with weeks of training-camp bulletins to come, I feel competent to write some kind of thesis on The England Football Squad 2002: A Medical History. Never mind Cleopatra's nose or Jenkins' ear, a severed ship's captain's tendon over which England and Spain fought a war in the mid-18th century ­ what about Beckham's foot? And then there are all those doleful, slack-jawed youngsters ­ Gerrard, Murphy, Dyer ­ never really glimpsed in isolation before, but now shuffling forward into the pallor of the arc-lights to lament tweaked groins, "niggling" hips and so on. They are our heroes. This, alas, is their tragedy.

There are still 24 hours to go, of course, but even at this stage in the proceedings, with weeks of training-camp bulletins to come, I feel competent to write some kind of thesis on The England Football Squad 2002: A Medical History. Never mind Cleopatra's nose or Jenkins' ear, a severed ship's captain's tendon over which England and Spain fought a war in the mid-18th century ­ what about Beckham's foot? And then there are all those doleful, slack-jawed youngsters ­ Gerrard, Murphy, Dyer ­ never really glimpsed in isolation before, but now shuffling forward into the pallor of the arc-lights to lament tweaked groins, "niggling" hips and so on. They are our heroes. This, alas, is their tragedy.

It is perfectly possible, given some sleight of hand with those competitions in which England mysteriously failed to feature, to map out one's life in terms of the World Cup. Practically my earliest memory from childhood is of bursting into tears in the corner of my parents' front room in summer 1966 (I can see the parquet floor as if were yesterday) as Weber's foot slid forward to make it 2-2, and, a bit later, exulting as the red-jerseyed horde swept on to victory. From Mexico, four years later, survives a display board of World Cup coins given away in some petrol company promotion and a copy of the England squad's rousing rendition of their tournament anthem, "Back Home".

And so the twitch on that invisible historical thread vibrates gamely on: Maradona's palm lofting up to punch the ball goalwards in 86; tuning up the car radio somewhere in the Dordogne on honeymoon in 1990 to hear the fateful semi-final shoot-out, and being so confused by the excitement of the French commentators (' Oh la la! Lineker arrive! Formidable! etc) that it took the evidence of next morning's papers to establish that England, queerly, had lost.

Quite a large part of my emotional life, it turns out, has been lived on these foreign fields, which makes it rather depressing that my sincerest wish for the next couple of weeks is that England should lose, immediately and ingloriously, and be returned home without delay.

There are several reasons for this, some of them trivial, others not. Over the next month or so, some of the least charismatic men in England ­ Stubbs! Hansen! Lawrenson! ­ will be paraded serially across our television screens as if what they had to say was of the slightest interest to anybody. There will be more talk of heroes and tragedies, along with abysses, mountains, burdens and triumphs.

All this is par for the course. One doesn't even want to enquire of the Irish fan who remarked that Roy Keane's departure from the Republic of Ireland squad was "like someone dying": this kind of hyperbole is endemic to sport.

At the same time, virtually everything that happens ­ or fails to happen ­ in English football can be tracked back to that long afternoon at Wembley in 1966. It is probably true to say that defeating Germany in that tense 30 minutes of extra time was not only the worst thing that could have occurred to us as a footballing nation, but also the worst thing that could have occurred to our collective sense of self. English football teams over the past 30 years have not, by and large, been especially distinguished, not trained up to the level of foreign competition, lucky to reach the comparatively minor summits allowed them. And yet always in the ether above hangs the scent of Ramsay's triumph.

This is not a complaint about sporting nationalism. Nationalism has always attached itself to football. George Orwell noticed it in Burma in the 1920s playing for teams of imperial policemen against local sides, in games where the Burmese referee could be guaranteed to look the other way whenever an Englishman's legs were scythed from beneath him. My father noticed it at Wembley in 1953, watching the first, famous defeat on home soil against Hungary. No doubt, as a Second World War veteran, he regarded Geoff Hurst, 13 years later, as a metaphorical armoured car. But the nationalism generated by Banks, Moore, Charlton and co turned sour a very long time ago. Its legacy is not simply the sight of human bulldogs draped in union flags en promenade in the market squares of continental towns, but the almost universal assumption that England deserve to win merely because they happen to be English.

The collective emotions stirred into being by football are not always so fraudulent. Last month, for example, 32,000 of my fellow Norwich City supporters made a 520 mile round trip to Cardiff for the First Division play-off final. Norwich lost, but everybody enjoyed the trip, nobody drowned themselves in the river Wensum out of pique, and most of the local sports journalists managed to avoid suggesting that Darryl Sutch's decisive penalty miss was a "tragedy".

If Beckham's heroes fail to distinguish themselves tomorrow, on the other hand, then driving a Swedish-made car through central London will be an activity best avoided. And so I shall be watching England's collection of crocks and makeweights ­ and also, it should be said, three or four players of genuine grace and talent ­ do their stuff in the same spirit that I wander out every four years or so to vote Labour. The heart yearns for victory. The head, alas, craves only defeat.

davidjtaylor@btconnect.com

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