England is strangely ungripped by World Cup fever. Its white vans are, mostly, unbedecked by crosses of St George, although the competition starts on Thursday and kick-off in England's opening game, against Italy, is only six days away.
Partly, this may be a matter of unspoken mutual expectations management. Being knocked out of the competition on penalties in the quarter-finals has become as much a part of Englishness as rain and teabags.
It is true, as David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, once said, that the English are the only people capable of feeling Schadenfreude about themselves. They wallow in the improbability of their team actually winning, while secretly keeping a tiny flame of hope alive. That is partly the fruit of years of bitter experience. Of going into the competition thinking England has four or five world-class players and then realising that they are not world class at all. Of thinking that England is going to sail through the group stage and then having to grind out a couple of lucky defensive no-score draws. Of deciding that the team's problem is that it does not have a foreign manager or that it has. This time the bookies say the odds are 28/1 and no one is quite sure whether this means "no chance at all" or "promising giantkiller potential".
Also, English self-deprecation may a form of politeness towards the Scottish people, who are shortly to vote on whether or not to be independent. The one thing that might tilt the referendum might be a premature display of three-lions triumphalism south of the border. An untrumpeted and unexpected run into the later stages of the competition, on the other hand (talking of keeping the flame alive), might bring the United Kingdom together despite itself.
Another reason, perhaps, for the fanfare in a minor key is the low reputation that Fifa, world football's ruling body, currently enjoys. In Brazil, the World Cup has been blighted by stories about stadiums not being ready and a popular resentment in the favelas against what is seen as a celebration of big money that will do nothing for the masses. While Fifa's credibility has been further undermined by new allegations of corruption about the way the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar. In a way, the allegations come as no surprise: the idea of playing football in 40-degree heat suggests that the decision was, at the very least, foolish.
The Independent on Sunday is, however, a young and optimistic newspaper. We do not want to do anything quite so un-British as saying that England have a better chance than other countries might think, but we do say: let us enter into the spirit of the thing.
Roy Hodgson, the England manager, is a bit more human and thoughtful than the leadership to which we are accustomed. The team is young and untested. So much so that Simon Brodkin, the comedian, thought he could get on the team plane to Miami last week just by dressing in the team suit. (He could not.)
Let us hope for a wonderful celebration of sporting excellence and international comradeship. There is nothing wrong with a bit of mild sporting nationalism, especially when it involves revelling in the multiple nationalisms of our United Kingdom and reclaiming the cross of St George from the retreating forces of the far right. Let the sun shine some of the time and, when it is all over, let us discover that a face-saving deal has been done to take the World Cup after next away from Qatar. Let us give it a go: anything can happen.Reuse content