For one World Cup, England failed to be England, and it was beautiful


England lost, 2-1, to Croatia in the World Cup semifinals on Wednesday. All in all, it was classic World Cup form for the English.

Their hope in the shape of a genuinely beautiful free kick goal by Kieran Trippier, a lead that felt like a death sentence, and the creeping, inevitable collapse in extra time. It was English football the way mum made it: Valiant and ultimately futile.

One variation on previous collapses was England didn’t lose on penalty kicks this time. That part was weird, England! Let’s all forget that England actually won a game in a shootout against Colombia to get to the quarterfinals. Probably forget that England played well throughout the tournament, too, and that they made the semifinals, and that there were people in England who genuinely believed that England could win a World Cup. Forget that for a minute everything seemed — and pardon the embarrassing and deeply un-English word here — promising.

I can say this now: We’re so glad that’s over. All that, England? The optimism, the giddy, beery celebrations, the hope? It was weird, England. It felt downright strange — almost uncomfortable, really — to see English soccer fans happy for more than a fleeting instant, much less rolling through Russia yelling “PEAKY BLINDERS” or “THIS INSCRUTABLE PASTRY WITH FISH IN IT IS DELICIOUS” or whatever English people yell.

That strangeness comes from the contrast with the usual deep pessimism of English soccer in all this already very pessimistic Englishness. England is already the world’s greatest overall exporter of weaponized pessimism in every form. This probably started earlier than Shakespeare, but let’s use him as an arbitrary starting point here, because Shakespeare’s essential message is the most English of all: “well that was crap all along, wasn’t it?”

  • Romeo and Juliet: Love and families, total crap.
  • Hamlet: Your children are crap, won’t prevent your murder, and will probably botch your revenge, too. Also, life itself? Crap.
  • Henry V: France is crap, total crap.
  • Macbeth: Ambition is crap, witches only partially crap.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Fairies? Mostly crap.

There is a definite and consistent theme here. It continues through novels like Frankenstein (science is crap) and Middlemarch (the country is crap), and runs all the way to the present in the form of anything Ricky Gervais has ever done (everything is crap, mate), Black Mirror (what if the robot was crap, but also you? What if you were the crap robot, eh?) to its purest form, English soccer.

There has been only one overwhelmingly positive product in the history of English culture. And even then, the Great British Bake-Off relies on everyone secretly believing their Knotsworthington Boxing Day Slaughter-Trifle is crap, and that Mary Berry is in fact lying when she says it is delicious.

For English soccer to have a good time at all at the World Cup wasn’t just a matter of running against type. It was outright inconvenient, especially for an event where barely concealed national stereotypes make up the bulk of flyby analysis. England was supposed to come in and die painfully and stoically because that is what sides in the World Cup are supposed to do. The French implode, the Italians connive, the Brazilians dance. The Germans calculate, and I’m honestly not sure what the Belgians are supposed to do. Belgium’s cultural export is befuddlement in the way England’s is militant pessimism.

There are roles to play, and England failed badly in being, well, England. An ebullient English side with little in the way of dysfunction didn’t just lack precedent. There was no vocabulary whatsoever for it, much less for the giddy fans roaming the streets incident-free and ladding it up.

The English press seemed as baffled as everyone else did. Only Raheem Sterling’s goalless streak in the tournament giving tabloid journalists anything dependable to cling to, because Raheem Sterling must be blamed for everything at all times.

Better to forget it, though, England. Remember: It was fun, and fun is crap, too. Fun leads to hope. Hope leads to expectations, and expectations lead to disappointment, and disappointment is top-shelf crap, in the sense that the crappiest crap would be placed higher than standard crap on hypothetical crapshelves.

England doesn’t believe any of that right now, though. They can’t — not after coming within spitting distance of a World Cup final and their best finish since 1990, all done with the third-youngest team at the tournament. Maybe they shouldn’t, since all results point to reasons for optimism. They might tell you it’s a crap argument, but the only thoroughly crap argument for the moment is pessimism.

I know, I know. It’s weird for us, too, England. But we’re all here now, telling you with the sincerity of an English husband calling his wife of forty years “dear” for the first time with tears in his eyes: It was, for once, anything but crap.

Crapshelves, by the way, is a real town in East Midlands. Absolute crap town, Crapshelves.

you may also want to read