For nearly three weeks now, much of my free time has revolved around watching – or at least keeping an eye on – the World Cup. While commitments have kept me from watching as much football as I’d like, I’ve fitted it in wherever I can, and most of it has been solid entertainment with a decent number of goals. Certainly a highlight has been the more unpredictable results. Hosts Russia, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, scored eight goals in their first two matches and are in the quarter finals after knocking out Spain, who I originally predicted would win the whole thing. Argentina only got out of the group stage by the skin of their teeth, to be subsequently eliminated by France; I was certainly pleased about that one, as well as Portugal going out to Uruguay. Then, of course, Germany didn’t get out of the group stage at all, the fourth time in the last five World Cups that the defending champions have fallen at the first hurdle.
The quarter finals are looking pretty open, with the likes of Russia, Croatia, Belgium and Sweden in the mix. Brazil stand out as the most traditionally successful team still in the competition, but they haven’t been too impressive – except in the field of amateur dramatics, in Neymar’s case – and France looked strong when they beat Argentina.
So what about England?
Well, in many ways, it feels like more of the same – and yet this young and more grounded team are giving cause for optimism. An earlier England squad would probably have drawn 1-1 with Tunisia instead of snatching a victory at the last minute, or put two or three goals past Panama instead of six. Team captain Harry Kane has scored six goals, putting him in a very good position to win the Golden Boot for the tournament’s top scorer – which only one English player, Gary Lineker, has achieved before. But while seeing England beat anyone 6-1 is definitely a pleasure, we are still waiting to see the main squad put in a really good performance against worthy opposition.
In last night’s match with Colombia, they were certainly tested, but not in the way that supporters would like. It was less about playing good football and more about being the better men and not rising to the bait of the Colombians, who acted even more disgracefully than Panama with wrestling English players and ganging up on the referee. Being on the brink of victory, only to concede a goal in stoppage time, felt depressingly like same old England. And yet, in a way, it would have been less satisfying if England had won in normal time – because as it was, they got the chance to prove that despite all evidence to the contrary, they can in fact win a penalty shootout! That will surely be a big psychological boost.
I really thought that I could keep calm and unexpectant for this tournament, but it just hasn’t turned out that way. It’s certainly harder when England actually win a game or two. I was really worked up watching last night’s match, so much so that I spent much of extra time listening to relaxing music to try and calm down. At least I know it’s not just me: with England winning their first two group games and avoiding the bigger teams in the draw for the knockout rounds, expectations across the country have risen from rock bottom, to optimism, to even a sincere hope by some that this time, football really could be coming home.
Writing this at my computer chair, without any football on the TV, I find it easy to state that I can’t see England winning the tournament and that I’m happy enough with them getting to the quarter finals, particularly at the expense of Colombia who really didn’t deserve to go through with how they chose to play. But when England play Sweden on Saturday, I can’t expect to retain a logical state of mind. That’s just not how it works. Despite everything, I’ll probably be cheering them on with unbearable butterflies in my stomach, desperate for them to actually pull it off.