England is a divided nation to say the least. Whether it be the religion you abide to, the political party you are affiliated with, or even the football team you support, this is a nation that is full of people with many contrasting agendas – and therefore, many contrasting lives. But on the 18th July 2018, just we do every four years, England became one. The incredible powers of football had been summoned from the distant city of Volgograd, signalling the start of this fresh team’s epic voyage into both our hearts, and into our footballing folklore.
Football, as ‘the working man’s game’, forever maintains a special place in the DNA of this country. For many, it acts as a rare opportunity for release, for escapism, for freedom – for happiness. Saturdayafternoons are the signal for hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to begin their fortnightly pilgrimage to the terraces, and for a brief 90 minutes, forget about the troubles of a cruel world that thrives beyond the nation’s stadia. All that matters, is supporting the team that you love, dedicating your heart and lungs alike to the eleven individuals on the hallowed turf beneath you. It truly is, the beautiful game.
And when England play, these sacred emotions are doubled, perhaps even tripled. The borders that exist between fans on a club level are stripped from their foundations, and laid to rest until the inevitable heartbreak divides us all once more. We travel as inseparable groups of family and friends to our respective pubs, parks, living rooms and if you’re so lucky, the match day venue itself, to back the Three Lions on their conquest to victory whenever they play. But when it is a World Cup that is at stake, it means things are just that little bit more meaningful, doesn’t it.
Watching England play at a World Cup is a truly magical feeling – especially this year. You can almost feel the population’s desperate hopes and dreams seeping from the car windows that bear the St. George’s cross, from the wall-charts that map our improbable journey to lifting the trophy, from the printed England kits that fly off the shelves. For once, this tired island nation entered a state of complete hysteria. Regardless of race, religion or of ranking, we united as one to dedicate an unforgettable month of our lives to a new-look England team, full of youthful faces and freshly discovered optimism.
Lead by the infectious Gareth Southgate, a man who has lived a large period of his life with footballing demons of his own, a man who unshackled himself from the guilt of that penalty miss against Germany at Euro 96, the likes of Harry Maguire, Jordan Pickford and Kieran Trippier were removed of their doubters during their idilic six-match Russian expedition. A string of heroic performances from the trio, fuelled by videos, images and tales of the delirium they were causing in their native country, guided England through perilous and uncharted waters all the way to the gates of dreamland – A World Cup semi-final.
England vs Croatia was the tie: a true date with destiny. Haunting memories from the disappointment of Italia ’90 flooded the forefront of our minds. Although the two teams differed in experience, the similarities were altogether too unsettling: both had a manager who had secured his status as a true favourite of the nation, both had one of the best strikers in the world to lead the line, and though the 2018 selection may have benefited from the genius of Paul Gascoigne, his unwavering patriotism lived on through our new batch of English semi-finalists.
But eventually and unfortunately, so did his tears.
Perhaps we did get too carried away with it all. Perhaps we lost our sense of reality with the mere glimpse of another World Cup success that this football-obsessed country so dearly deserves. Perhaps it was never meant to come home, after all. But in amongst the pandemonium, was a country on its knees, in truth. The resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis meant that we had entered a political landscape that was worse than anything we had seen in decades – but nobody could have cared in the slightest.
Our televisions were busy lighting up our homes like warm log fires, instead of shovelling depressing news pieces onto our sofas by their hundreds. We cast aside all of the world’s pains troubles and replaced them with a sea of embraces and endless chanting. Men and women, of all ages, threw their arms around the nearest person to them with tears in their eyes and Three Lions on their chest. The phrase ‘it’s coming home’ trickled out of one Carling-ridden mouth as a mere whispered dream, and began its monumental takeover to the tips of everybody’s tongue. We were living in a haven of ‘#WaistcoatWedensdays’, Ruben Loftus-Cheek adoration and corner-kick dreams. The cracks in modern England were perfectly paper mâched over with glorious replays of Harry Kane penalties, Harry Maguire headers and Jesse Lingard wonder-goals.
With the Croydon Boxpark as our Mecca, this beautiful, emotional, ludicrous, awe-inspiring English renaissance finally came to a heartbreaking, soul-crushing end last night. A fine finish from Mario Mandzukić shattered the dreams of one small country and ignited the hopes of an even smaller one. But if anything, what this proved to us all, is that the sport of football can do what no crooked politician, no ludicrous reality-TV show, no corporate business can – bring the people of England together, bound by a heated pride in our chests. The cruel roulette of international football has yet again nullified the sky-high ambitions of the Three Lions, but in two years time, we can kick-start the takeover once again, with a fresh belief at the foot of the mountain that is Euro 2020.
But until then, I shall leave you with the words of England’s own Kyle Walker:
“We might live in a time where sometimes it’s easier to be negative than positive, or to divide than to unite, but England: let’s keep this unity alive. I love you.”