Twenty years ago, England reached the semifinals of the World Cup in Italy, an event regarded—in England—as one of the best-ever World Cup moments because, well, England actually reached the semifinals of the World Cup. The English lost to West Germany in a penalty shoot-out in Turin, Italy, but anyone who watched that game, and that tournament, won't have forgotten it. West Germany was lucky, England wasn't, and Paul Gascoigne, then the team's most interesting player, seemed never to entirely get over England's exit.
There's a famous photograph of Gascoigne taken toward the end of that game. He's seen wiping away tears with his grass-smeared shirt. He didn't play in another World Cup. But who can forget Italia 1990, when it was almost as hot in London as it was in Rome, when windows of houses everywhere were flung open and when you could hear the cheers and sighs of relief of people watching matches on their TVs wherever you were in London. You didn't need to follow the World Cup that year; it followed you.
Eight years later, England, which failed to qualify for the World Cup in the United States in 1994, reached the last 16 in France, only to lose to Argentina in another penalty shoot-out. That, too, was a memorable game; a spectacular goal from the teenage Michael Owen, David Beckham sent off, an England goal in extra-time disallowed, and Argentina was lucky again. Twelve years earlier in Mexico, Maradona punched the ball out of reach of England's goalkeeper Peter Shilton and into the goal without the referee noticing. "The hand of God" was Maradona's famous explanation.
For anyone too young to remember England winning the trophy in 1966, those two tournaments in the 1990s have somewhat frozen English footballing expectations. Those expectations are now less about England winning and more about the inevitable disappointment when England gets knocked out, and when during the tournament that will happen. Should England get through the group stage this year, it will likely face either Serbia or Ghana in the last 16, then in all likelihood France in the quarterfinal, and should it beat the French, there will be Brazil, a team that appears to lose only when they can't be bothered to win.
The disappointment isn't only about losing: It's about the England team and its football. They, and it, are often considered by their supporters to be neither as classy nor as ruthless as their opponents—or as lucky. Which is why, if you follow England, it's perhaps best to have a backup team to support in World Cups, one whose football is everything that England's is not.
You might find that fickle, supporting more than one team, but as Will Frears points out in his Paris Review blog, it's also a way to deepen your involvement in the tournament so that your television set is the center of your attention and of your life for the next month. "Total Football" is a Dutch football concept dating from the 1970s, the premise of which is that every player should be capable of fulfilling every role on the field—defense, attack, and the orchestration of movements from one to the other. From the point of view of someone watching the games, "Total Football" means serial involvement with the hope that you end up on the day of the final with one team you hope will win. Why drop out early?
Today, it's to begin all over again—one whole month to agonize over England's pending departure from the World Cup and to pick a side you think might actually win. In England things get all the more crazy because in a couple of weeks' time, and coinciding with the World Cup, there's Wimbledon. Meantime, the cricket season is in full flow. There are international rugby matches being played between England and Wales and Australia and New Zealand. In the week after the World Cup ends, there's the British Open at St. Andrews. That's a lot of sport, even for this sports-obsessed country.
On Saturday, as much of the world knows, England will play the United States. Until April, this match was seen mostly in England as friendly. There's no historical grudge between the two sides, as there was between England and Germany and between England and Argentina, even if England lost to the United States about 5,000 years ago in World Cup history terms—back in 1950. The U.S. team has several players who are, during the regular football season, members of clubs in the English Premier League, so they are familiar, and the United States in general seems to favor the English game as a model for its own.
Yet this match has now become very much more awkward because of events in the Gulf of Mexico. England, home of BP, is to play the United States, whose southern coast has been devastated by the oil gushing from a BP well. There's now politics to this game, and if relations between the two countries are to survive, BP (which may not survive) has done nothing to roll back a creeping popular assumption in American popular culture: that people with British accents are villains.
Who will win? England is theoretically the stronger team, but the Americans only need to draw to believe they have won the contest. England is also a brittle team. Wayne Rooney, the Manchester United striker and England's best player, is volatile and erratic. The English midfield players—Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Joe Cole—never seem to quite dominate their opponents in the way that, say, Spain's midfield players do. The English defense has lost its central player, Rio Ferdinand, to a knee injury. In Fabio Capello, England has a strong-minded, clever, and experienced manager, but—as compared with American sports—football is less dependent on the intervention of a coach during the course of a game. And unlike some other teams I can think of—Italy, for example—England isn't so strong if it falls behind.
Meantime, there are the England fans as well as the London press. Could have done better is a typical refrain after English performances, and even if England has achieved some consistency under Capello, there's always the sense among English fans that their team has let itself down more than it has been outplayed by the opposition. In the run-up to the game against the United States, the feeling here is that winning and losing are both in English hands.