Hope is the thing with feathers, wrote Emily Dickinson, but she was a poet who never reported on a World Cup. Had she done so, she’d have known that hope is the thing with football boots. I have never seen a ground in quite the same state of delirium as the Big Swan in Niigata, Japan, in 2002, when England were leading Denmark 3–0 in the round of 16.
England fans formed a series of long, snaking conga lines, dancing their way around the stadium. This detonation of glorious feathered and football-booted hope seem utterly justified when England went 1–0 up against Brazil in the next match, the quarter-finals, and it was clear that every defender in the competition was terrified of the speed and skill of Michael Owen. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be in Shizuoka was very heaven.
Of course, it ended badly. So what? Yes, perhaps the abiding memory is of disappointment and ill-conceived headlines about “years of hurt”. Never mind. What counts is the experience: those few days of hope, glorious hope.
Did the hope make up for the pain of defeat? Of course not. How could it? But think of every World Cup as a love affair that went wrong. No matter how painful the ending, you will always have those mad times of perfect bliss.
England played Argentina in the round of 16 in 1998 in a match haunted by sporting and military history. I was in England for that one and experienced first-hand the tsunami of hope that flooded the country in the days before the match. It was as if no one could talk of anything else: people only vaguely aware that a football was round were discussing David Beckham’s free kick against Colombia.
Sure, Beckham got sent off against Argentina, and England lost on penalties: but what mattered most were those long moments when England were still joyously and deliriously in contention, a time when dancing in the street seemed the only sane response.
And oh, those Beckham free kicks. The rising, swerving trajectory, that line of beauty, the number of times they lit the Roman candle of hope across England. There it was again, as England took on Ecuador in the round of 16 at the World Cup of 2006: a shot heading for the far post that curled in just inside the near.
There followed a few glorious days when everything seemed possible: the world was ours for the taking. By the quarter-final against Portugal, hope was out of control. Then Rooney was sent off, the match ended 0–0 and in the traditional shoot-out England scored once in four attempts.
What fools we were to hope… or were we? Have you ever tried white-water rafting? You end up wet and cold so you should be feeling pretty miserable. But you don’t, because you had the most tremendous ride.
That’s what a run in the World Cup is like. Even if you’re left battered and dishevelled, it’s an experience you wouldn’t miss for the world. And if a World Cup is a white-water ride, then the name of that turbulent river is Hope.