It’s not every edition that this column brings you a global scoop, but this week is an exception. The breaking news – brought to you exclusively by RT – is this: the World Cup is about to start! And England are taking part!
It’s taken a good deal of relentless, intrepid, high-principled investigative journalism to bring you this story, and I’m proud to say that I’ve pulled it off. I can reveal that the tournament will take place in Russia, and that on 14 June it begins with the hosts taking on Saudi Arabia. Four days later, England play their first match, against Tunisia.
Where’s the great build-up? Where are the orgies of patriotism? Where are the overblown expectations? Where is the excitement about Brazil, favourites for the competition as usual? Where’s the reluctant admiration of Germany? It’s all been tremendously calm: another World Cup is coming, so let us prepare ourselves for what the fates have in store for us. It’s the World Cup! And the world replies: whatever.
I’m sure we’ll love the World Cup once they start playing football. The downs and ups of the England team will provide a satisfying soap opera, no matter what else they bring us over the next few weeks. But the sense of tingling anticipation has been spectacularly absent.
There’s a number of possible reasons. One is that the domestic season was absorbing right to the close, what with Manchester City’s flirtation with perfection and Liverpool’s doomed adventuring in the Champions League.
Another is the fact that the England manager’s principal job these days is to manage not footballers but expectations. This task was brought to it its logical extreme at the previous World Cup under Roy Hodgson, best remembered as the man who aimed low and missed.
England failed to get past the group stage. They didn’t win a game, losing to Uruguay and Italy, and managing a 0–0 draw with Costa Rica. Few people will be putting the mortgage on England’s chances of repeating the glories of 1966, despite some adventurous selections from the boss, Gareth Southgate.
There are the usual problems of modern football. There are no unknown superstars to fall in love with – we watch them all every week in club football, in the Premier League and the Champions League. The England football team is no longer a gathering of the greats: they’re mostly decent players who aren’t really cock of the walk, even at their own clubs. There are more shameful callings than to be a hard-working second-rater, but such people were not born to inspire.
And there’s the fact that the tournament will be held in Russia – and worse, they won the decision at the same time Fifa decided to hold 2022’s tournament in Qatar. Football is about glory, as Danny Blanchflower famously said, but no one is in any doubt that football administration is about money.
Russia’s aggressive rhetoric and their violent acts on British soil don’t inspire us to reach out to Russia with love; nor do the scare stories about Russian hooligans going to training camps to prepare for the England fans.
So we brace ourselves for action, with two cheers for the World Cup of 2018. Let’s hope for a glorious surprise: Senegal to cut a swathe through the top teams, Australia to shake the world with demented team- mindedness, Iran to produce the player of the tournament – and, maybe, England to win a match…