After 20 years, I finally want England to win

Our fans liked to express their pride by chanting 'No Surrender to the IRA' five years into the ceasefire

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Lefties and liberals love confusing themselves with conundrums, such as "would people keep budgies in a socialist society?" or "would you support independence for Greenland if you were a gay Eskimo?" So the World Cup can get people in a dreadful twist. Twenty or 30 hours can drift by as they debate who you should support if Costa Rica are playing a Polish team that has a sexist Maoist manager but there's a military coup in Costa Rica between the end of extra time and the penalty shoot-out.

Lefties and liberals love confusing themselves with conundrums, such as "would people keep budgies in a socialist society?" or "would you support independence for Greenland if you were a gay Eskimo?" So the World Cup can get people in a dreadful twist. Twenty or 30 hours can drift by as they debate who you should support if Costa Rica are playing a Polish team that has a sexist Maoist manager but there's a military coup in Costa Rica between the end of extra time and the penalty shoot-out.

Even better is the argument I've heard that the left should support the defeat of its own country, in the same way that Lenin supported the defeat of the Russian army in the First World War. Which slightly misses the point as Lenin was hoping the war could be turned into revolution, which doesn't really apply to the game against Denmark unless it's suggested that both teams surprise us by coming out after half-time carrying pikes.

The first point worth making to anyone in a quandary about who to support is that it doesn't make much difference, as you're not playing. You never see the panellists saying "I'm wondering whether the American goalkeeper was put off slightly, Des, by a bloke in Hackney shouting at his TV 'come on Portugal, get these imperialist pigs back for the blockade of Cuba.'"

But also, supporting any football team is almost always irrational and therefore can only be done properly through instinct, not intellect. When I was 10 I was so devastated by Gerd Muller's winner in the quarter-final against England that even now, whenever it's shown on TV, I get a shudder the way others would if reminded of the time their teddy fell in the fire.

Throughout the last 20 years I've often had the opposite instinct, relieved when England have been knocked out of championships because of the bitter nature of much of the support. Most other countries' supporters seemed happy to dance and sing and sit on each others' shoulders, while English fans preferred to express their pride by chanting "No Surrender to the IRA", five years into the IRA ceasefire.

Even the non-violent support for England has often been joyless, as pubs have rumbled with fists clenching and growls of " Come on England," the sub-text being "Surely we can beat a poxy place like Sweden, it's only tiny and we used to run India and that's huge." One reason may have been the way most people were brought up with the myth of natural superiority. One of my first school memories is of a teacher proudly placing a globe on the table to point at bits of it, saying "this was ours, this was ours, this was ours, this was ours" until he got to America and said "This was ours but we gave it back."

Back then we were taught that Britain was best at everything; our political system was best, our Queen was best, and a lesson about weather went something like "Other countries have deserts and monsoons and hurricanes or might be covered in snow, but we have a lovely mixture, the right amount of everything."

I even remember something like "look at the shapes of other countries. France is a boring boxy shape, Italy's long and stringy and Denmark's got bits all over the place. But England, straight in bits, curved in other bits, just right." Or maybe I imagined that one.

But maybe things are changing. The fans in Japan appear to be celebrating with a similar spirit to those from other countries, and the atmosphere in England is largely devoid of the traditional grumpiness. I know this isn't representative, but I saw the Argentina match on a huge screen at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, with about 800 people supporting England, and the atmosphere was entirely friendly.

Obviously that might not have been typical, as there was never much chance of a bundle with the novelists trying to take the short-story end. But in London as well there appears to be a lively mood of anticipation rather than the vindictive sneering of previous competitions. It could change, and just as Germany's penalty win in 1996 was followed by the wrecking of Mercedes cars, defeat by Denmark may result in crowds chucking bacon against a wall and yelling "squash the lean bastard".

Or it could be that finally the old England is wilting. Now the average teenager is less likely to think of abroad as a weird place that speaks funny, but as somewhere they might one day live and work in. So it would be marvellous if real politics was played under the same rules as the World Cup. Because the charm is that once the game starts, both sides have an even chance. Which is probably why it still hasn't caught on in America, as they wonder why they're not allowed to fire hundreds of balls at a time from 15,000 feet away where they can't be tackled, just occasionally half-apologising when one of them accidentally flies past and lands on a housing estate for a goal-kick.

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