Hunter Davies: Perhaps we all enjoy this pain of defeat

I seem to have spent the past 38 years gritting my teeth at the TV, a nervous wreck, yelling abuse
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Me and our vicar are really sick. Here in Lakeland for the past two weeks, our vicar has been a familiar sight, walking around, beside the lake, amongst the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze, wearing her England shirt. Did I mention she's a woman vicar? When the excitement got really intense, she also started flying the England flag from her car. Who says the whole nation did not get behind our lads.

And a lot of blooming good it did us. Commercially it did, with all those pints swilled, crisps crunched, but I suspect several million tatty souvenirs will now have to be dumped prematurely, thus losing the profits made so far.

News flash: yesterday in Cockermouth, Sainsbury's official medal album, which started off at £2, was selling for 1p. One pence. Dear God. How the mighty have crumbled.

I did try so hard not to get carried away. Before it all began, I went around saying England were rubbish, look at those boring friendlies where we did nothing, Sven is an indecisive wally, Beckham is a has-been, wandering around like a spare tattoo at a biker's wedding, we've no chance of winning. I predicted France and Portugal for the final. And most England fans, before it all began, were pretty clear-headed about our chances, not getting carried away, admitting we didn't have the quality of France, well aware of the statistics which indicated we never do well in these big tournaments. The bookies put England only sixth or seventh, which was sensible, realistic.

But as the games progressed, I and most of the nation allowed ourselves to get carried away, most of all by the Blessed Rooney.Hope sprang, as it usually does when following England, only to be shattered. Once again.

I was there, for the World Cup final of 1966, and have my ticket and programme to prove it, but since then, I seem to have spent the past 38 years gritting my teeth at the TV, a nervous wreck, yelling abuse at England, rubbishing the manager, and then, on four horrific occasions -1990, 1996, 1998 and now 2004 - crouching behind the couch, unable to take it any longer, while waiting for five lumps to tap five easy balls into the goal with only the goalie to beat and no one about to tackle them. Or penalties, as they are called.

My new friend Gazza went through this twice as a player. In 1990, in the semi-final against Germany, he was supposed to take one of the penalty kicks, but chickened out, as he'd been booked. His tears at the end, by the way, were mainly to do with it being the end of six weeks in England's World Cup camp, which he had loved so much, with the lads, not wanting to go home, always someone to play with, the real world blocked out.

What good will come out of all this for us, the armchair fans? Well, at least I'll be able to watch the rest of the matches without getting an awful headache. Childish and stupid, says my wife, how can a grown man behave like that, do get a grip, it's only 22 men charging up and down a field yet you get more worked up about it than real-life tragedies, I don't understand it, anyway I wanted Portugal to win. Oh belt up, woman. You know nothing.

And yet, I don't really understand why I allow myself to get in such a state, be seduced by fleeting signs of hope, con myself into believing England have a team of talent, when we have all been through this so many times. Will we never learn? Or do we, perhaps, enjoy it, the agony of it all, find a weird pleasure in defeat, a kind of joy through suffering? It's quite cathartic in a way, the nation now in mourning, together in our misery. Something to exchange pleasantries, or unpleasantries, about, as opposed to the weather or Iraq.

While facing up to the defeat, being brave, noble, we still manage to retain, deep down, a slight lingering sense of post-imperial superiority. Let's get things in proportion. What has France and Portugal got to make us jealous? OK, sun and wine and food, culture, architecture, while we've got, er, what we have got to boast about today? The City, that's doing jolly well.

We did win the World Cup, once, so we haven't always been useless, and we gave football to the world, inventing the game, the rules, the language, which the globe now follows. So there. But I think the best way to rationalise it, during these days of emotional anguish and post-traumatic disorders, is to tell ourselves we are ahead of the game. Yup, failing will happen in the end to all the great advanced nations. It's happening to Germany now, but we got there first. We're more advanced. We lead the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

'Gazza - My Story', by Paul Gascoigne with Hunter Davies, is published by Headline, at £18.99

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