Ah, the anguish. As Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic buried England’s dreams in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final, 53 million hearts split in two.
But my lingering memory of that evening is not the frenzied joy of the Croatian team, or England’s laboured, leggy second half. It’s of Gareth Southgate, stoic in his waistcoat, comforting his tearful young players. As they applauded the crowd, the fans returned in kind. No boos, no jeers, but instead a buoyant serenade – (hilariously, to the tune of Atomic Kitten’s ‘Whole Again’) – ‘Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on, you can bring it home again.’
Considering the ghastly ghosts of England’s recent past, this was significant. Something had shifted in the national psyche. Once again, we were proud to be England fans.
I returned to England at the beginning of June, having been travelling and working in Asia and Australia for 18 months. I was kicking back in the sun on the other side of the world, but the stormy political situation in Britain had been impossible to ignore. The painfully thin margins of the Brexit referendum spoke for ideological divisions sweeping the land. Like many young people across the planet, I’ve endured frequent, painful arguments about politics with my own family. After the horror of Grenfell and continued debate about the merits of austerity, I felt I’d arrived back into a nation uncertain of its identity, and even more uncertain of its future.
But what of the World Cup? This is a country that remained utterly obsessed with football, that still remembers and references the halcyon glory of 1966, and all that. The Premier League was doing booming business- as usual- but on a national level, it seemed like apathy had taken hold. England were knocked out without winning a game at Brazil 2014 (a World Cup I sadly attended) and crashed out to Iceland – a country with a population roughly the size of Coventry – in the 2016 European championships.
These were not times for giddy optimism.
But the start of the World Cup coincided with rare glorious weather. So, we got the Pimms out, stocked up on cheap burgers and plastic cheese, slathered on the factor 50 and stuck the footie on. And, for once, we didn’t look completely terrible. With the youngest squad in the World Cup, captained by 24-year-old Harry Kane, England harnessed their youthful energy and dynamism in their impressive victories over Tunisia and Panama. When we watched Gareth Southgate on TV, we spotted none of the arrogance of previous England set ups. Just a young, intelligent manager – sensible, measured but optimistic. A man who had gotten rid of club rivalries and united his young team in a way we hadn’t seen for a long time.
And the memes! ‘Three Lions,’ – with its famous, catchy coda, ‘It’s coming home, football’s coming home’ – has always been our adopted national anthem. But this summer it took on a far greater meaning. You’d hear the phrase everywhere you went: ‘It’s coming home,’ – said with a tinge of typically English irony, so you couldn’t tell whether everyone was joking or not. The internet did what the internet does, and for weeks you couldn’t go on Facebook without the song hilariously edited into famous movie clips and music videos. Something truly strange was happening. We were actually having fun during a World Cup.
You could feel it everywhere you went. Strangers would stop and link arms in the street for an impromptu chorus of ‘Three Lions on the shirt.’ Hyde Park opened its doors to thousands of fans, who watched the games on gigantic screens and tossed their beers into the sky with glee whenever we scored. Supermarkets ran out of lager. Elsewhere, the conservative cabinet was tearing itself apart from the inside, but this month our attentions were locked upon the football. We’d won a penalty shootout for the first time in World Cup history – anything was possible from here. June became characterised by something that doesn’t usually sit well with the English: sunny optimism.
Someone even referred to England as 'hotland' - can you believe it, us! Hot!
And alas, we crashed out in the Semi-Finals, brutally, in extra time. But this time it was different. Even the tabloid press didn’t seek any scapegoats, instead applauding the ‘heroes’ in Russia. Looking back on the lyrics of ‘Three Lions,’ a song now nailed into the national psyche, you realise that it was never about victory. Frank Skinner and David Baddiel reflect on when ‘Lineker scored,’ in the 1990 semi-final (when England were knocked out by Germany), or Paul Gascoigne’s goal in 1996 (ditto). These are summers that the songwriters remembered forever: a united nation, glorious in defeat. ‘30 years of hurt,’ they sing, ‘never stopped me dreaming.’
And as I witnessed this country come together for a magnificent month, I realised I too would remember this summer forever. An English summer when the sun actually shone; when political anxiety became background noise. The summer when we felt a swell of national pride.
The summer when football almost came home.