It’s not normally a nice thing to take joy in other people’s misery. But on occasions, I’m prepared to make an exception, especially when it’s England we’re talking about, and especially especially after that delightful 3-2 defeat at the hands of Portugal earlier in the week. Laugh? I nearly wet myself. It made the elimination of Scotland worthwhile, just to watch Kevin Keegan’s face change from “smug satisfaction” (2-0 up) to “deer caught in headlights” (3-2 down).
It happens every couple of years. England reach the finals of the World Cup or European Championships and the nation immediately decides they not only can win it, but it is their god-given right to do so, because they invented the game. Scotland used to do this sort of thing too: but only once, in the 1978 World Cup with Ally’s Tartan Army. We lost to Peru, scraped a draw with Iran and had a player fail a drug test before deciding “Fuck it” and beating eventual finallists Holland (thanks to Archie Gemmill’s wonder goal) to be pipped on goal difference. We learned our lesson and, since then, have only ever turned up at tournaments for a laugh, with any football incidental. On the other hand, England are the dogs of world football: no matter how much of a kicking they get, they always come crawling back again, insistent that this time (more than any other time), they’ll get it right.
This perennial optimism flies in the face of all the objective evidence. Putting it into perspective, England squeaked into the finals this time the same way as the likes of Slovenia: via the playoffs, and they only just managed that, having to rely on Sweden to beat Poland in their last game. Their warm-up games saw a creditable draw against Brazil, victory over the mediocre Ukraine side knocked out by Slovenia, and then a 2-1 win against the footballing superpower of Malta, thanks to them missing a last-minute penalty. [Bet he was a cross Maltese…] Given this, expectations should be modest, with the quarter-finals a credible target. But no…
Mere optimism would be fine. However, it manifests itself in nasty jingoism and pointless patriotism — why are newspapers giving out free posters exhorting “Come on, England”? Who are they trying to impress? Neither the England team nor their opponents will be found hailing taxis in central London this week. I passed at least one venue with a big screen saying “Watch England Win Here”, which is the kind of arrogance I love to see taken down a peg or two. And even as someone who’s no fan of Mr.Posh Spice, the abuse he got was pretty indefensible. All of this helps turn me into a raging Braveheart, which provokes howls of outrage from some English friends, who protest they’d support Scotland if the roles were reversed. This is missing the point: they view Scotland as part of Britain; we see it as an occupied state. And given England’s grossly dominant role in the UK, all the outer provinces are going to take any chance we get to laugh at the invaders, even if it means becoming temporarily Portuguese, Romanian or – most of all – German.
This is why I shall be parked in front of the TV at home on Saturday night (watching it down the pub is simply too risky), waving my frankfurter around, balancing a plate of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte mit Schlagsahne on one knee, and a foaming mug of Holsten Pils on the other. It’s just a shame England are meeting the Germans so early this time, as there’s no chance for a “heartbreaking” penalty shoot-out. I’m not sure what would be better: defeat at the hands of the Germans has been so frequent over the past 30 years, it ceases to appeal. So perhaps this time, a plucky England victory will do, followed by a brave draw against Romania, and a tragic exit on goal difference. [The sad thing is, I doubt if even the worst humiliation imaginable will make the English race shut up about bloody sixty-six — I mean nineteen rather than ten, but they were both a long time ago. Time to get over it.]