How much do you want to see Ross Kemp naked? That’s what all this boils down to in the end. And the answer, maybe, just maybe, is not as much as you might think.
Three years ago, an England round-of-16 victory over Colombia was deemed sufficient for him to rip his top off and howl like a WWE wrestler down the lens of his phone for the benefit of social media. If England go all the way, Grant Mitchell certainly will too, and there’s no way we can say we hadn’t been warned.
The first of the rituals is upon us. The names are out. Trent’s in. Lingard isn’t. And there in the stomach rumbles that old friend, not so much false hope as enforced hope, like the final night of a three-night stag weekend. Forcing oneself to hope that this time, it really will be different, but knowing, ultimately, that it won’t.
England doesn’t expect. It never really has done. The last time England legitimately expected was 51 years ago. You really can’t win a tournament without knocking out at least one proper, top tier footballing nation, and England hasn’t done such a thing since 1966, so the weight of actual, real expectation is low.
Could this year be different? We got to the World Cup semi-final last time, after all (beating Sweden and Colombia, but not Croatia, and were comfortably beaten by Belgium, twice, but we try not to think about that).
But this team’s even younger, even more exciting. Foden, Rice, Sancho, Mount, Grealish... if you keep saying all the other young exciting names to yourself, over and over, it might just be enough to drown out the horrors of imagining Kante and Mbappe back together again, both better than ever before.
Or Ruben Dias and Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix and Diogo Jota all jogging out the tunnel behind Cristiano Ronaldo. Or Courtois, De Bruyne, Tielemans, Lukaku… You get the idea. The point is that there might, just be enough young, exciting English names around not to notice the unfortunate fact that there are half a dozen teams that are just as young, and just as exciting. That England has changed, but in comparative terms, it has also stayed the same.
But maybe, you know, that’s fine. The longing has gone on for so long now it is part of our cultural heritage. If the longing went, would we have left?
I can remember staying up half the night, in 2012, to watch Andy Murray win the US Open, becoming the first British men’s grand slam winner in something like 10,000 years and actually weeping. A year later, when he won Wimbledon, you would be hard-pushed to find a more breathless set of newspaper front pages since the end of the Second World War.
And yet, in 2016, I happened to have a bit of a party in my flat for the final of that year’s Euros. Around 20 of my friends came, all fairly sports obsessed, and yet nobody once mentioned, all night, the other sporting occasion that had taken place earlier that day. Murray had won Wimbledon again. No one breathed a word about it. No one, frankly, cared. I couldn’t tell you for certain if I even watched it.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s the longing that we cherish, more than the winning. Maybe the hope that things might be different trumps the expectation that things remain the same.
And more’s to the point, this deluded hope has lingered so long it has passed down the generations. Little boys and girls who have cried into the full kit their father bought them, watching yet another England quarter-final exit, are now very much old enough to be buying full kits for their little children, expecting, perhaps even hoping, for the ritual to be repeated.
That it might be their turn to want, more than anything, something that has never actually come even vaguely close to happening in a very long time indeed, and almost certainly will not do again.
Except that, you know, maybe, just maybe, this time might be different. It really could be, you know. The home crowd, if it’s allowed in. A lot of young, exciting players. Anything could happen. Couldn’t it?
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