Why English football fans are taking a calm approach to the World Cup
We've been burnt too many times in the past by unrealistic hopes, says Simon Kelner
If the definition of insanity, as Einstein first contended, is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result, then, as a nation, we are a model of it when World Cups come around. Ever since I can remember – specifically 1966 when I was at primary school – we English have approached the tournament with varying degrees of hope, expectation and even entitlement. Each time, the outcome has been the same. The methods by which we secured failure may have been different, but, time and again, our national representatives have come home with nothing more than a suntan, a hangover and a few signed shirts.
Occasionally – notably 1970 and 1990 – our hopes have been well-founded. We had a number of world-class players, an experienced manager and a highly competitive domestic league populated almost exclusively by home-grown players. Other times, we have been buoyed by nothing other than a reliance on one or two superstars and a belief that, as the country that gave the world this beautiful game, sooner or later we were bound to resume our position of global pre-eminence. Every four years, the nation's approach to the World Cup became an exercise of hope over experience, a triumph of hype over realism.
And so we come to the 2014 tournament, which begins next week. Yes, next week. This may actually have passed you by, because this time around, the cities, towns and villages of England are not bedecked in St George flags, shops are not festooned in red and white bunting, and the media have generally desisted from whipping us up into a state of hysteria. There is an altogether calmer approach to this World Cup.
Maybe we have learnt from history. We have finally come to terms with tempering our expectations. We have looked at the squad assembled by Roy Hodgson, the most undemonstrative of managers, and realised that, truthfully, we don't stand a chance. The Premier League has given us the opportunity to see the world's best players every week and now we can conclude that we really don't match up. We hope that this is the moment for Wayne Rooney to show the world what he can do. But haven't we been there before? Best not to rely on that.
Maybe the reason we don't seem that bothered about this World Cup is because, as a country, we're doing rather well in other, possibly more meaningful, spheres. Every day, we're told how much better our economy is performing than our peers' economies in Europe. Growth is exceeding targets. We are a poster child for post-recession recovery. We have craved sporting success to divert us from the misery of our daily lives, but is it the case that we don't have that need any longer? Surely not. Are people in London too busy watching house prices rise to take notice of the World Cup? It cannot be so.
No, I think we're just playing a canny game. World Cup? Who cares? We will go into next week with an unfamiliar mixture of insouciance and resignation. Our national team will not be burdened by our expectation. Hubris hasn't made the squad. And maybe, just maybe, that's our secret weapon.
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