For any love affair to survive it needs some passion and excitement injected into it at some point. You can only coast on habit and routine for so long before restless boredom sets in, with both sides feeling like they’re being taken for granted. All relationships need some degree of reinvention and reinvigoration. Unless you feed it, love just withers away on the vine.
This is just as true in our connection to our national football teams as it is in our personal lives. Many times over many years we’ve felt let down and disappointed by England, but in recent years a worse thing has happened – we’ve become unconcerned.
Many of us feel our hearts sink in international week. The tournament defeats no longer hurt, the poor performances no longer surprise, the simmering resentment at the rewards the players receive despite all of this, grows ever deeper. The feeling that, actually, you wouldn’t mind if they got beaten, if only to knock down these false idols from the media-constructed pedestals they’ve been placed upon is not uncommon.
We just shrug and accept that this is how life is now. We look back to the early days of the relationship and remember the passion we felt, the pride we felt. There was a bond and an excitement to the affair because success didn’t seem utterly impossible and you had believed in the talent of the players. But now success seems virtually impossible and the love has been exhausted.
However, this weekend, as England took on Canada, it all came back to me. The pre-game nerves, excitement and anticipation. The goodwill towards the players, the hope and belief that victory could be within our grasp. The feeling of pride in the players during the anthems. The unequivocal support for all of the players and not just the ones who annoy you slightly less than the others. In short, my passion for England was reawakened. The flame in the boiler was relit. Yes. This was what it was like to want your national side to be victorious.
In a hostile atmosphere, with 54,000 home fans against them, you wanted to be on England’s side, you wanted to support them, you wanted to see them do well and you felt that they could. And they did.
From the start, England looked confident and took a two-goal lead by half-time. It felt like The Old Days. Back when we had a chance of winning a World Cup quarter-final. Back to 1990 or 1966, perhaps. But the goalkeeper had to be taken off with a bizarre allergic reaction. It was the sort of thing that might only happen in a fictional tale and somehow, only added to the excitement of the story.
England conceded a goal and Canada pressed for the equaliser. Normally, at this point, England do something stupid. Someone important kicks someone and gets sent off. Someone misses an open goal, someone gets beaten by a 65-yard shot, someone gets injured, or someone gives away a clumsy penalty.
Somehow, you knew this was different. As England defended, it was never quite as desperate as usual. They didn’t bottle it. They kept their shape and their discipline. That didn’t stop it being gut-knottingly tense, but this is what it is like to care. I’d forgotten what that felt like.
The sweet relief at the final whistle was a delicious release. Our player’s joy at their success in reaching a World Cup semi-final, as they danced and hugged each other, was a joy shared with the nation, or at least the million and a half who stayed up late into the night to watch.
England must now overcome the current world champions Japan. I haven’t wanted England to win a game more since Italia 90’s game against Germany.
Can we do it? Crucially, England have a building momentum. Their worst game was their first game against France and each game since seems to have been better than the last. The coach, Mark Sampson, has changed personnel in midfield and up front, not relying on the same players regardless of the opposition, but changing players and tactics to suit their opponents. They’ve now won four games on the bounce 2-1.
Something is happening. Something is in air. The two hardest games now lie ahead. Whether England are victorious in none, one or both of them remains to be seen, but the important thing for me is this reawakened emotion, the feeling, the desire to see your nation’s representatives do well and to rejoyce when they do.
There is a simple, open-hearted brilliance about what is happening in Canada at this World Cup. The passion is back. The excitement is back. The love has bloomed once again.