It is rare that a single four-letter word sums up the mood of a nation, even this nation, but a loud exhaled "phew" seemed to do it shortly before 5pm yesterday. Naturally, not everyone wanted England's footballers to proceed into the knockout stages of the World Cup. But even those with no interest in football, indeed even those who actively looked forward to seeing Fabio Capello and the multi-millionaires in his charge trudging disconsolately up the steps of an aeroplane bound for an unforgiving Blighty, had cause for relief following the nail-biting 1-0 win over Slovenia that, at least until Sunday and the match against the old nemesis, Germany, keeps England's World Cup campaign alive.
There are all kinds of reasons to be grateful, and many have nothing to do with football. Take Liudvika, the Lithuanian cashier at a petrol station just outside Leominster in Herefordshire. She recently bought a Toshiba 40in flat-screen television, in a promotion which offered a full refund if England win the World Cup. Liudvika can't name a single England player but she knows now she might still get her £400 back. At any rate, there's marginally more chance today than there would have been had Capello's men failed to beat the Slovenes.
More than anything, though, the reason for all except the most vehement football-haters to give thanks is that a palpable mood of optimism has been reignited, and it makes England a cheerier place to live. With a single swing of his boot, Jermain Defoe, the scorer of England's priceless first-half goal, restored the feelgood factor to a country that was reeling from the most brutal Budget – not to mention the worst performance by an England football team, the sterile draw against Algeria – since Denis Healey was Chancellor.
Yet it is is a feelgood factor that owes more to misery averted than majesty achieved. There is something unutterably depressing about all those St George's flags and banners flapping from cars, all those sandwich boards outside pubs offering live big-screen coverage of every England game, on the morning after our boys have been eliminated. It is a little like turning up at a wedding reception after the groom has jilted the bride, and we can be fairly sure it will happen sooner or later, but this would have been indecently soon.
Accordingly, the mood across the country was decidedly tense yesterday morning. If Middle England can be said to have a pulse, then it is probably Radio 2, where Chris Evans summed it all up on his breakfast show. "On-line, on-digital, on 88 to 91FM and on tenterhooks," he said, before playing a clip of Corporal Jones in Dad's Army offering his pep talk. "Don't panic!" cried Jonesy, panicking, and it was all too easy to imagine the spirit of Corporal Jones infecting the England camp, with Capello cast as Captain Mainwaring.
In the event, the England team evoked a crack platoon of Marines rather more than they did the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, and Capello, demonstrably still in charge after questions over his authority and judgement, looked more Captain Braveheart than Captain Mainwaring. But they still only managed to score one goal, which meant that a late Slovenia equaliser would have dumped them out. "Watching England sometimes is a cure for constipation," mused the BBC TV co-commentator Mark Lawrenson.
By then, schools, factories and offices had emptied, creating that curious phenomenon of a 2pm rush-hour that only really happens during major football tournaments. In some of the schools that didn't allow pupils to leave early, large televisions were wheeled in, giving a whole new generation a taste of what it is like following England in a World Cup. "Without the agony, the ecstasy's not quite the same," was how the BBC's Gary Lineker expressed it, but we'd all settle for a bit less of the agony.
Ultimately, though, what is marvellous about England playing in a crucial World Cup match – win, draw or even lose – is the togetherness it engenders, the knowledge we're all experiencing the same swings of emotion at the same time. Apart from the 2005 Ashes, the 2003 rugby World Cup final, and the occasional royal event, or perhaps an eclipse, only football has this power. When second-division Sunderland won the FA Cup one famous Saturday afternoon in 1973, employers on Wearside expected record levels of absenteeism on the Monday morning. Instead, the opposite happened, because everyone wanted to talk about the match.
Not everyone talks with authority, however. The more significant the game, the more likely it is to arouse passion in viewers who don't know the offside law from a tub of margarine. This can be a mixed blessing for those of us who have to explain to our indignant wives, shouting at the referee for unjustly booking the England full-back, that said full-back's name is Glen Johnson, not Ben Jonson, the 16th-century dramatist, author of The Alchemist. But come to think of it, a little more serious alchemy is needed if England are to overcome Germany and turn what so recently looked like a miserable World Cup campaign into a triumphant one. For now, though, phew!
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