Not being a practical boy, I was always hopeless at doing anything that involved making something. A teacher at Fairfield Juniors, frustrated at my eight-year-old self’s hapless attempts to glue various bits of paper together to make a box, walloped me across the back three times for being useless, as though this act of petty violence would somehow turn me into an origami expert.
I wasn’t trying to do it wrong, I just couldn’t work out how to do it. I was so upset and furious at the injustice at being beaten for this, that I swore – even as a kid – that I’d never forget it. It is illustrative of so much in life and England’s international football.
These should be happy, exciting and cheerful days. A World Cup is on the way and England are taking part. Great.
But this is always when some sections of the press set about hounding a player or the manager and generally trying to rack up sales and clicks on the back of being negative towards England at every turn. They always claim they want England to do well, but the evidence is before our eyes that they care about filling space and stories much, much more.
The next weeks will be filled with garbage passed off as news. They will press and probe and provoke players and manager to say something that they can distort into a ‘news’ story and a stinking pun. Every negative connotation that can be invented out of the most innocuous statements will be taken. Every chance to set someone up for a fall will not be missed. Every single tedious little detail will be drummed up into a 147-word story no matter how lame, weak or utterly insignificant. (Remember that whole thing about darts?)
Then, just when you think it can’t get any more negative, there will be a load of sexist stories about the women in the lives of our male footballers. Expect to read the word ‘flaunt’ regularly.
This negativity runs so deep that we’re all infected. After England’s game on Saturday, 606 was quite a thing to behold, as caller after caller – each more miserable than the previous – queued up to tell the public that England were no good, the players didn’t care, or were just useless, the opposition was crap and they should’ve won by more. Southgate is too nice, too inexperienced, hasn’t a clue at this level. Sterling was no good, the defence no good, the manager should’ve picked someone else. The ability to dismiss a win, as though it was a loss, seems a quintessentially English affliction.
It was as if they couldn’t wait to be negative about England. Indeed that they were planning to be so, whatever the result. Clearly, they enjoyed being negative. I had the feeling that it was administered as some sort of psychic revenge on the pampered under-performing multi-millionaires. And that gets nearer to the real truth of the situation we have here, I think.
But like my teacher who couldn’t beat practical skills into me, these critics don’t seem to realise or care that attacking players for not being good enough is unfair and just pointless. They are all as good as they are. They’re not trying to be bad or trying to be worse than their true selves. You might as well criticise someone for how they walk or their singing voice. I wish our instinct was to enjoy them for what they are rather than criticise what they’re not.
Whatever the tabloid-fed cultural reflex – and that is certainly at play in England all the time – it doesn’t make any sense to be so down about England before a World Cup. Being miserable about them isn’t the best way to make yourself happy. Not being negative isn’t the same as being unrealistic or jingoistic. They don’t have to be only either brilliant or rubbish. There are other outcomes. Let’s just enjoy whatever happens. Let’s try seeing the good and not the bad.
We feel so much better seeing the best in people rather than the worst. Indeed, I’d contend that this deep and instinctive need to see the worst in people, expressed by many towards England, has its roots in dysfunction and depression.
The statistics on the widespread prescribing of antidepressants tell us that England is an unhappy country, split by warring factions each with a polar attitude towards the other, each spitting venom at the other and blaming them for everything that is wrong as this survey released today illustrates.
So it’s no surprise that this leaks into attitudes towards our national sport, nor that some media outlets exploit it ruthlessly and without compassion or care. Indeed, if we want to kick back against the worst media behaviour, the rebel stance is to be positive about the national side and to reject their behaviour as indecent and destructive.
Not wanting to be negative about England doesn’t mean you have to be unrealistic about our chances of winning a game, let alone a tournament (though football throws up all manner of unexpected situations all the time, as we see time and again). Southgate, a man of such level-headed decency and good sense spoke well when he said this
“We think this is the best group of players available, we think they can be very exciting now and even more exciting in the future. I don’t want to limit what they think is possible because they’re young and hungry and they want to have a go at things.That’s what we’ve got to do at this tournament, really enjoy the ride.”
Yes. How nice to hear that word ‘enjoy’. And that is the be all and end all of it. Enjoy the ride. When I hear all the acrid bitterness, cynicism and anger of England fans who take it all far too seriously, encouraged and supported by a popular section of the amoral press, I feel in doing so they have created a poisonous culture which only puts more pressure on the team. When I hear those who think England’s players represent and illustrate how ruined we are as a nation, how this once great country is now on its knees, brought down by tattooed footie idiots with expensive watches, I think of the words of Bill Hicks and remember that the World Cup and life is just a ride to be enjoyed.
“The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we … kill those people. “Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.
“It’s just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok…but it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride.
“Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace….but please, please, for the love of God, play Vardy on his own up front.”
Amen to that.