As the final few minutes counted down inside Wembley the crowd was hushed in quiet contemplation. We were going to the world cup, and as the feeling sank in, such was the overpowering swell of emotion, not a soul could think to disturb the moment of collective reflection on the achievement. Those who were able to pull themselves together spoke artistically instead by playfully launching paper planes, poetic symbols of the journey their heroes will now take from these shores next summer to let the lions roar.
Or maybe not. The truth is you don’t really sit down to enjoy watching England, you hunker down to endure it. There’s nothing approaching excitement or anticipation about the experience, merely the futile acceptance that in the interruption of the standard footballing schedule it’s either that, EastEnders, a night spent silently reflecting on the emptiness of your own existence, or, if things truly hit rock bottom, flipping over to the Scotland game instead.
By now most England fans have developed the cynical emotional detachment necessary to tolerate tuning in for these insipid exhibitions. Sure, we all start out as wide-eyed whippersnappers watching with the earnest enthusiasm that glory lurks just around the corner. However, the more you mature the more you come to comprehend that viewing the whole thing as an elaborate farce, a red and white black comedy, becomes the only coping mechanism capable of introducing some element of entertainment into what you’re eyes are so desperately trying to tear themselves away from. Where once you naively saw glory waiting around the corner, you instead come to the realisation that Harry Kane is the man taking that corner and your best bet is to simply howl with laughter at the searing absurdity of it all.
On Thursday, it was the decision to move Raheem Sterling from the open expanses of the wing into a claustrophobic number 10 role that typified this outlandishness. It’s a position that demands a specific set of skills: subtle movement, spatial awareness and close-quartered creativity. In short, a precise list of qualities Sterling has shown he does not possess. To no one but Gareth Southgate’s surprise, the Manchester City man spent most of the evening buzzing around with the lively pointlessness of a fly perpetually slamming into a glass door, oblivious to the ajar window just beyond its comprehension.
In this perverse sense, there is no sporting team which can be said to better reflect the spirit of its followers than the three lions. No matter how low expectations plummet in order to ensure the impossibility of being left feeling let down, the lucky few selected will rarely fail in producing a performance so aggressively mediocre that even the half-baked reflections of Ian Wright come across as both a welcome relief to proceedings and cohesive by comparison. Marcus Rashford and a poorly serviced captain Kane aside, England last night didn’t so much look like the encapsulated spirit of national endeavour so much as a domestically-themed Premier League all-star team thrown together to do 90 minutes as part of a soulless PR function in the middle-east (coming to a dystopian future near you). When Joe Hart, despite being lucky not to concede a first half penalty, is being named man of the match, let alone in the starting XI to begin with, it’s little wonder more people turned up to see the NFL game played in the same stadium at the weekend. Soon, young delinquents faced with community service will be dropping to their knees begging the judge to have them pick up dog shit rather than be sentenced to bump up the attendance figures at Wembley so as to make the theatre of international football appear a more attractive prospect than the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While some may use the damage inflicted on the pitch by the Americans as an excuse for England’s lacklustre display, thoughts should instead be turning to other ways for the powers that be to service the debt of their headquarters’ construction. While their German, Spanish and Italian counterparts have raked in the cash from DVDs commemorating their respective recent triumphs on the global stage, our FA should instead seek to boost finances by rebranding the recordings of games such as last night’s as sleep aids. With an endless array of examples to choose from, insomniacs could feast upon the inertia-inducing catalogue of calamity with which we are already so intimately familiar. Finally made it all the way to the end of England 1-0 Slovenia? Why not try England 2-0 Malta, or Slovenia 0-0 England. The one thing guaranteed is that this team can keep churning out new material faster than potential consumers could ever hope to sustain consciousness by subjecting themselves to it. Sunday’s meaningless encore away at Lithuania threatens to provide a true masterpiece of the genre.
If it’s drama you’re after then South America is where you should be turning. With just the top four teams qualifying automatically, a mere two points separate the five teams currently sitting between third and seventh. The final batch of fixtures promises a night of batshit crazy twists and turns. Failure to win away in Ecuador will see Argentina fail to make even the fifth placed playoff with an awaiting New Zealand. The only thing more unsettling that a World Cup without Lionel Messi is the thought that Jordan Henderson will be there instead. That is, of course, presuming the pitch invader who decided to put forward his case for selection in the dying minutes last night hasn’t already leapfrogged him in Southgate’s pecking order. After all, the bloke in question showed more command of midfield in his brief cameo than Henderson and Eric Dier had done all night.