England doesn’t expect much these days: except when it comes to the World Cup | Marina Hyde

The country is riven by political incompetence and economic distress so expectations are low for everyone bar Gareth Southgate and his players

Well. About last night … to describe the conclusion of the group stages of this World Cup as crazy feels a bit like calling the residents of Arkham Asylum merely eccentric. For three minutes on Thursday, Costa Rica’s lead over Germany would have meant Spain were heading home, with the coach Luis Enrique mercifully in the dark about this potential outcome. “If I’d have known,” he reflected mildly afterwards, “I would have had a heart attack.” It was certainly the evening for it.

ITV’s Graeme Souness appeared to be suffering from a number of baroque medical conditions as he “analysed” the notion that the ball did not go out of play before Japan’s crucial second goal against Spain. Graeme’s conniption swiftly tipped over into such deep conspiracy theory that he is expected to follow his stint in Qatar with a secondment to Donald Trump’s stop-the-steal campaign. “Why have we not seen the evidence?” the studio’s Oliver Stone kept demanding rhetorically.

Should Souness find the siren call of US wingnuttery impossible to resist before the end of this tournament, he could perhaps be more competently replaced by any one of the rush of viewers who created their own at-home videos showing a ball which from one angle looked like it was wholly in their kitchen, but from another angle was actually revealed to still have an edge crossing over on to their living room carpet. Witchcraft. Sheer witchcraft.

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Then again, it has all been highly watchable. Only Fifa could survey the WTF-fuelled mayhem of this World Cup’s group stages and be entertaining talks to abandon the four-team format. Sporticidal maniac Gianni Infantino has been spearheading these discussions since 2016, when he rubber-stamped the 48-team World Cup as part of his organisation’s absolute commitment to the principle of quantity not quality. As things stand, plans have been under way to move instead to groups of three teams, with possible penalty shootouts to stop countries playing for results that favour them both. If you can’t have quite the level of financial corruption you enjoyed for decades, then I guess you scratch the itch by corrupting the product instead. That said, more teams mean more money, so in Fifa terms you get a twofer. There are now hints that this sensationally appalling idea might be up for reconsideration, with backroom discussions in Qatar apparently increasingly open to the notion of four-team groups again, meaning the 2026 World Cup would clock in at just the 104 games.

Gareth Southgate
Honestly, who’d be Gareth Southgate? Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

Anyway, all that is for another day, because England play Senegal in the round of 16 on Sunday, and the buildup finds The Country That Gave Football To The World TM managing its expectations like it manages its economy. Honestly, who’d be Gareth Southgate? The sheer intensity of the ire directed at England’s most successful manager since Alf Ramsey has for some time suggested that its most aggressive proponents are angry about a vast constellation of other things for which Southgate and his team serve as a convenient proxy.

It’s notable that England’s national football side is almost the last area of the public realm of which some people still have the highest expectations. Trust in every other institution has drained away over the past decade and beyond, with pretty much the last thing “England expects” being for England to win the World Cup. Arguably the most striking thing about the often-grotesque failures of state during the pandemic was the relative indifference to them. The country deserved better – of course it did – but what initially saved the Johnson administration was that the country clearly did not expect better. That distinctly declinist state of affairs meant that it was ultimately Boris Johnson’s lying which did for him, and much later than a number of much deadlier charges might have done in a state with the luxury of higher standards.

Johnson’s mayfly successor Liz Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, famously unveiled a budget that led the former US treasury chief Larry Summers to observe: “The UK is behaving a bit like an emerging market turning itself into a submerging market.” Which is, at least, partway to it being just like watching Brazil. Although England (the country, not the football side) is unfortunately not even demonstrating any of the emerging market characteristics of high growth, high productivity, an expanding middle-class … maybe we’ve just got the fantastically-high-expectations-in-football bit. Hey – it’s a start.

In fact, for the preceding two major tournaments, it has been possible to observe tartly that England are one of those countries who can be described as “playing on despite the political turmoil back home”. This World Cup doesn’t look likely to have broken that run so far – although now they are entering the business end of their draw it does feel as if it would take an awful lot of luck for Southgate’s side to appease the section of the fanbase which believes a World Cup win is the very least they could do, actually. A number of our madder notions of exceptionalism are in the process of being quietly abandoned after several years of wanton political and economic self-harm – perhaps football will end up the last remaining bastion of the tendency.

If it does all go tits-up for England on Sunday or beyond, maybe a quick stint on I’m A Celebrity could rehabilitate Southgate in the public imagination for his hideous crime of possibly making substitutions too slowly. After all, a mere three weeks on the show took the infinitely greater transgressor Matt Hancock all the way to the threshold of the jungle throne in the public vote. It’s a funny old country, isn’t it? It would take more than a few homemade fan videos to penetrate its enduring mysteries. And I think, on balance, that I’d prefer a full-blown Souness conspiracy theory to explain them than the rather less palatable reality.

Marina Hyde’s World Cup Week will appear each Friday during the tournament


Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

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