A Casual’s Guide to The Agony and Ecstasy of English Football and What Monday’s Final Could Mean

It’s almost too cliché to write at this point, but scenes from England broadcast across social media on Thursday morning seemed to suggest that football might just actually be coming home.

If you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, neither do I.

Yet, for some unexplainable reason, I’ve been crawling out of bed while it’s still dark to watch England rise higher and higher in the rescheduled 2020 UEFA European Football Championship.

Now we’ve made it to the finals after a gut-wrenching, come-from-behind victory over Denmark in the semi-finals on Thursday and it’s fair to say that England and their supporters have lost their collective minds. Every past defeat has been forgotten and we are fully paid up to the idea that football will be brought home on Monday.

The last time England were this close to glory was in 1996 when we were beaten in a penalty shootout against Germany in the semi-finals. I was three years old at the time.

The missed goal that cost England the opportunity to enter the finals that year was made by Gareth Southgate — the current England manager — who has now been able to rectify that mistake made a quarter of a century ago and take the team closer than they ever have been to lifting a major tournament trophy since 1966.

For a country that has been utterly devastated by COVID over the past 16-months, is contending with a disastrous crashing out of the European single market, and has been rocked by an endless stream of political scandal causing a dire dissolution of public will,  its a rare glimmer of hope.

To be fair, we’ve been here before. Many, many, times. To be an England football fan (or ‘sock-ah’, as you insist on calling it) is to get your hopes up ludicrously early on and be routinely let down year after year after year.

It happened most recently during the 2018 world cup when England made it to the semi-finals, only to be beaten in extra time by a vicious Croatian offence. The pubs and streets of the country, up until that point, had been overflowing with blind optimism that we could well be in.

The crushing defeat of that 109th minute goal by striker Mario Mandzukic sent warm beer and British dreams spilling into the gutters to stew for another five years.

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Fans celebrate at Wembley Stadium in London /Getty Images

Losing over and over again at football is a uniquely painful experience for the English. After all, we invented the game and yet we’ve gone through extensive periods of being decidedly awful at it throughout the years. It would be a bit like every single other country picking up AFL and managing to humiliate Australia at it, year after year.

I write all of this like I really know the pain of being an England fan. I don’t. I’m a tourist, only getting involved when there’s a big tournament on and England’s chances look good. I would honestly struggle to explain the off-side rule if pressed on it.

Much to the disappointment of my die-hard Chelsea-supporting father, I’ve never much been into football. It’s always seemed too brash, too money-driven, and supported by flag-waving drunks who will take any excuse for a punch up. Not to mention the outright racism evident in many of the football stands across the world.

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England Captain Harry Kane celebrates the winning goal against Denmark/Getty Images.

That being said, there’s nothing quite like watching the team representing your home country deftly maneuvering a ball past their opponents in a stunning display of hive-mind talent and slotting it past the keeper to secure a win.

The current England line-up also give more liberal-minded casuals like me a little more to feel good about supporting. They are nothing like the extravagant super-stars of the early 2000s. There’s almost no focus on their wives-and-girlfriends, their drunken antics, or their celebrity inanity.

Jordan Henderson, our midfielder, has been a vocal gay rights campaigner and wears rainbow laces in his boots.

Raheem Sterling, our winger, is a working-class boy from Jamaica who was raised by a single mother in London and was given an MBE for his work against racism in football.

Marcus Rashford, our forward, forced the UK government to make a U-turn on the provision of free school meals for children from low-income families after leading a campaign in the UK.

It’s doubtful that the government ever had to hold crisis meetings over pressure put upon them by David Beckham.

The team have been described as ‘woke’ by critics who have condemned them for taking a knee before games to mark their rejection of racism. Our own fans have booed the team throughout the Euros for doing so – with a government minister voicing his support for fans opposition – and yet they continue to stand firm in the face of populist disapproval.

The victory over Denmark on Thursday morning was revelatory but felt somewhat bittersweet.

Denmark themselves have had a rough go of it. Their top player, Christian Erikson, suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch during their first game of the Euros and the team circled round him to give him some privacy as medics worked to save his life. It’s uncertain whether he will ever play football again.

Denmark was more or less forced to finish the game and, understandably, lost. They lost their next game too before a decisive victory over Russia put them on the path to victory. Bringing an end to that underdog story felt a little unkind but sport demands winners and losers.

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Danish players react as paramedics attend to Christian Eriksen/Getty Images

At 4:45 on Monday morning my alarm will sound once again and I will drag myself out of bed and in front of the TV, surrounded by my press-ganged housemates, to watch England face down the formidable Italian opposition on our home turf.

We will rise to the song that England fans have all had on mindless repetition in our brains for the past month, the gloriously cheesy ‘Three Lions’ by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner, and the Lightening Seeds, with its chorus of ‘football’s coming home’.

This is a song that so perfectly captures the longing of England that its lyrics ‘thirty years of hurt / never stopped me dreaming’ have to be updated to ’50 years…’

Whatever happens on Monday, England will have triumphed by making it this far. ‘Three Lions’ will sing out no more and our disappointment will be horribly, horribly bitter.

But, as we’re allowing ourselves to dream, maybe, just maybe, England could snatch a win from the jaws of merciless tradition. Will it mean that racism is over, that England will emerge a proud, woke nation led by a winning team full of activists and campaigners? Not likely.

It will, however, mean that a once in a lifetime event has finally come to pass and that football, at least for now, will have returned to its rightful home. I’m shaking just thinking about it.

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