Leading article: Our great British summer of hope

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More important than life and death is hope, and that is what is offered by tonight's game between England and Italy.

You do not have to be very interested in football, or even sport generally, to appreciate that there is a tingle of national expectation in the air. We do not know how it is going to end.

Even the most stolidly utilitarian – or Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish – of us may feel the stirring of patriotic identification. There is something deep and anthropological about belonging to a group, which is something that should be celebrated in moderation.

Moderation is what England's Euro 2012 campaign has been all about. Only two weeks ago, confidence was below sea level. Part of this was evidence-based, as they say in politics these days; part of it was a matter of defensive psychological preparation. When Joleon Lescott scored against France in the first engagement of the tournament, the caution started to lift. Some decided that it was safe to hope again, but most of us probably thought that such childish things should stay put away, as England's chances would no doubt go the way of that day's brilliant sunshine. Here we are, however, at the start of the knock-out stage, and the optimism is creeping up on us. Yes, it may be all over tonight. But it may not be.

The team is not the best in the competition, but it has passed a minimum threshold. Roy Hodgson has brought a straightforwardness to the task of managing 11 players on the field that has made a difference detectable even to the non-footballing eye. With Mr Hodgson, what you see is what you get, which makes a change from some of the national team's recent experiments. He is a proper manager, in that he manages people with decency and they respond favourably, seeming to have faith in his decision-making and even in one another.

Let us look forward with hope, then, not just to tonight's game, but also to a summer of sporting entertainment. Wimbledon starts tomorrow and the Olympics are only 33 days away. For all that this newspaper has been sceptical about the Olympic legacy, we feel that there has been a certain Hodgsonesque quality to the organisation of the event itself. It is possible to imagine that the Games might be run well. The venues are finished, and under (the revised) budget. For once, the dictum that the British are the only nation to feel Schadenfreude about themselves may be disproved. We love to complain about how useless we are, not only at winning international football games, but at organising huge public-sector infrastructure projects.

This time, this summer, it could all be different. That is the joy of sport. It is only a spectacle, only athletes against each other or against the clock, but we cannot be sure who is going to win. It has something of the ability of art or fiction to take us out of ourselves, to lose ourselves in "what happens next?". But more than most art, sport is a collective experience, by which we can revel in feeling that we are all in this together, even – or perhaps especially – at a time when such an idea of social solidarity is under economic pressure.

What is more, the moderate nationalism inspired by sporting competition is balanced by the role of sport in promoting democracy and human rights. The British ministerial boycott of Ukraine and the refusal of a visa to the Syrian Olympics chief are small gestures, but they add to the pressures such as those that broke down apartheid in South Africa.

So enjoy tonight's game and, win or lose, tomorrow we can start to ask the question that annually tests the hardiest optimist: Will Andy Murray win this time? Well, we can but hope.

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