Next week the fun will start. Across the Channel, our boys will be competing for one of sport's greatest prizes. Commentators will scream at us from TV sets and, for a while, something approaching national unity will seem to break out, involving even those who, in more normal times, are utterly indifferent to football. The fans in Germany and those packing pubs, clubs and squares at home will be caught up in the great, hysterically hyped drama of the World Cup. Meanwhile, in sitting-rooms across the land, a surprising number of daddies and boyfriends, brothers and sons, will make their own contribution to the occasion by knocking the wife or girlfriend about or bashing the kids.
To those lucky enough not to have to deal with such things, the connection between a sporting event and domestic violence may not immediately be obvious but, for the police, it is a fact of life. Men drink, get excited, then disappointed: someone, usually the person closest to hand, has to suffer. In a brave attempt to forestall football thuggery at home, police forces across the country have publicised the launch of Operation Red Card - a crackdown on violence in public and private during the World Cup.
One of the concerned rozzers, Deputy Chief Constable Clive Wolfendale of North Wales Police, has pointed out the escalation of football-related jingoism in recent years and has warned that what starts with an excessive fondness for the St George flag can easily tip into criminality. "I ask that people appreciate the tensions that can be raised at this time, particularly if you end up being the victim of domestic violence."
Although it is a slightly odd way of putting it (presumably, the one group who do not needed to be reminded of the domestic dangers of football are its victims), the thinking behind Operation Red Card is based on experience. As a nation, the English are apt to respond defeat on the football field by going berserk - near where I live in East Anglia, a group of yobs besieged and attacked a pub where some luckless Portuguese-born locals had gathered to watch their team defeat England in the European Cup.
But if the police, social workers and domestic violence units are basing their evidence on sporting traumas of the past, they may be in for an even bigger shock. For English fans, the 2006 World Cup contains greater promise, and therefore more potential for disappointment and violence, than most recent tournaments. The problem here is simple: we really do believe that this time we can win.
It is slightly mysterious how this uncharacteristic mood of optimism developed. English clubs may have done well in Europe, but mostly with teams made up of foreigners. The manager is widely mocked in the press and our star player may not even take part. None of that seems to matter: 2006 is, we have convinced ourselves, going to be our year.
A national nervous breakdown is approaching. The absurdity of forever harping on about the only time England won a major football competition, a full 40 years ago, has suddenly become apparent to all but the most lame-brained nostalgia freaks. To an already volatile spirit of nationalism has been added a confusion of defiance, embarrassment and triumphalism, caused by events as various as the Iraq war and London's nomination as the Olympic venue is 2012.
There are other ominous elements. The event takes place in Germany. Our team has a foreign manager with a reputation for misbehaviour in his private life: oversexed Europeans can be guaranteed to annoy the English. Sporting snobbery pervades the British press and is as evident in the universal admiration of our cricketers and rugby players as in the sneering superiority with which the activities of footballers - such as the charity party recently held by our most dignified sports star, David Beckham - tend to be reported. An unattractive strain of misogyny marks public attitudes to the better known women associated with the English football team, Victoria Beckham and Nancy Dell'Olio. Politically, the country is restive; after nine years, the electorate is bored and irritated by its government, like someone at the dreary fag-end of a dead marriage.
"Most of all to remember that football is only a game," Deputy Chief Constable Wolfendale has said, but his brave, inarticulate words have a plaintive note of defeat about them. Whether England is dumped out of the World Cup in humiliating fashion or go down valiantly to a better team, the rage and disappointment will be there. We are not good losers at the best of times; when we fail and there are no foreigners to chase down the street, we fight tearfully amongst ourselves.
There is, of course, the other frightening, unlikely possibility. It is, frankly, almost impossible to imagine the level of insanity that will be unleashed should England actually win the World Cup. It would be good to think that a new mood of generosity and optimism would descend upon the nation, perhaps leading to a Summer of Love as it did all those years ago.
Somehow that seems unlikely. Take a look at a football crowd after its team has won a big match. The modern way is to taunt the opposition, to prance monkey-like about the pitch in gloating triumph. The police officers preparing for Operation Red Card are probably aware that winning will have even more alarming results on the streets and in homes than losing. Either way, we are in for a bumpy ride.Reuse content