Pessimism is woven into the English DNA. This is no more apparent than when it comes to football.
There is, however, a strange opposition. Though cynicism often coats England’s chances at major tournaments, it was an overconfidence that led to their exit from the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championships.
In Brazil, many still believed England would emerge from a group that included Uruguay and Italy and in France, discussion was taking place about who should start in the quarter-finals, before a ball had even been kicked against Iceland.
Oddly, pessimism and arrogance can exist together. It all boiled down to expectation. England were written off in terms of silverware, but the majority presumed safe passage from their group in 2014, and a breeze against the Icelandics.
As Gareth Southgate leads his men on their Russian odyssey, there is a flatness to the build-up. The Three Lions are, again, expected to fail – in some capacity (they are 16/1 to win* the entire competition). Where assumptions have been made about group-stage victories in the past, there is a very real fear that even in a group that includes minnows Panama and Tunisia, nothing is certain.
England find a way to lose, whereas the elite always find a way to win.
After England’s promising 2-1 victory over Nigeria, some of the media once more opted for this strain pessimism.
“England’s bright stars flatter to deceive”, read one headline. One paper suggested Dele Ali would have been better off choosing Nigeria, implying the Super Eagles have a better chance of success. All quite bizarre, really, given Southgate’s men played with purpose and energy in the first-half.
Yes, football is a game of two halves, and to truly compete at the top level, you must remain consistent. Yet it is typical of the negativity that has stigmatised the English that a second-45 that laboured at times, should trump the dynamism of England’s opening showing.
The Nigerian coach, Gernot Rohr, admitted his side could’ve conceded six or seven goals alone. Were England more clinical, this may have easily been a thumping.
Vibrant; energetic; vivacious
For the first time in a long, long time, England have a vitality to their play. Painfully pedestrian football had become a far too frequent sight under the likes of Roy Hodgson and Fabio Capello.
Raheem Sterling, shrugging off another week of press sabotage, made smart runs and should’ve scored. Predictably, Jesse Lingard was selfless with his movement off the ball, leaving gaps for his team-mates to exploit. Harry Kane, though gifted a goal, hinted at reaching match sharpness in time for mid-June. Meanwhile Ali, Eric Dier, Kieran Trippier, Gary Cahill and Jordan Pickford also impressed.
Southgate’s squad has the potential to be a galvanising force; exciting to watch, matching intricacy with punch the final third and standing steady at the back.
England are not Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, but had any of the other home nations performed like England, they’d undoubtedly be praised. Positivity would saturate the reports, breeding a collective confidence.
A change of narrative
It’s not that England suddenly need to re-consider themselves on the same level as their neighbours, but that fans, pundits, media and so forth, should refashion the narrative.
If England truly are underdogs, the narrative surrounding them should be that of plucky upstarts.
There has been talk of a quarter-final being a genuinely good result, a marker of progress, and in truth, it probably would be deemed a relative success, but there a distinct absence of a spirit.
There’s nothing mildly stirring about reaching the quarter-finals. The World Cup is all about dreams, but for too many years, major tournaments have seemed like nightmares and England seem content with their assumed fate once again.
Are England favourites?
Certainly not. Can they match the squad depth of the Brazilians, French, Spanish, Argentineans or Germans? Again, no – why that is, is a subject for another day.
But do they have the potential to inspire? When so much of the conversation is about England possessing the ability to condemn a nation into sadness, bitterness and anger following an early-exit, it seems a jarring question.
Mix logic and rationale with hope and you often find a compelling combination. Wales’ Euro 2016 adventure, where a nation of 3,000,000 were just 90 minutes away from a final, was built on firm foundations, but propelled by fervent and passionate support. There’s no reason why, backed by a supportive press and encouraging following, England can’t ride a very similar wave of enthusiasm.
Fans will always back their side, but there’s a meek acceptance of England’s fate at Russia this year. That shouldn’t be the case.
This isn’t an attack on the media, or fans, but a call to reshape the narrative and view England’s World Cup through an optimistic and buoyant lens.
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*Odds correct at the time of writing