If you’re a proper football supporter, getting excited about England on the eve of a major tournament is considered uncool. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to engage people in conversation about England’s chances, only to be greeted with a look of bored condescension. ‘I’m not really interested in international football,’ is the inevitable reply.
Well, sorry, but I’m pretty fired up about the Euros — although, to be fair, I do conform to the stereotype of the inauthentic, prawn-sandwich-eating fan. When people are polite enough to respond to my opening gambits, it isn’t long before I reveal my ignorance about the game. For instance, there was the time I found myself seated across the aisle from Glenn Hoddle on a British Airways flight to Tel Aviv to watch England play Israel in a Euro qualifier in 2007.
‘How come Craig Bellamy’s not in the squad?’ I asked him, referring to the Liverpool striker who’d racked up seven goals that season.
‘Er, because he’s Welsh?’
That match resulted in a dismal 0-0 draw and England failed to qualify for Euro 2008, but my enthusiasm for the national team remained undimmed. Even our failure to get beyond the group stage in the most recent World Cup, Brazil 2014, did nothing to dent it.
My love affair with England began with the 1990 World Cup. I was in the South of France for the knock-out stage and, back then, it was hard to get British TV outside the UK. I had to watch England’s three big games on a 12-inch black-and-white set and listen to the commentary in French.
Obviously, that enhanced the whole experience. First of all, you feel about 20 times more patriotic when watching England abroad. I experienced this again when we played Germany in the semi-finals of the 1996 European Championship, which I watched in a sports bar in New York surrounded by Germans. But my nationalism was off the scale in 1990. The fact that the French commentators were clearly impressed by our players helped. They were particularly fond of Chris Waddle, who played for Marseilles. They also seemed to have a lot of time for Paul Gascoigne, possibly because of his French-sounding name.
But the main thing was the performances. One of the magical things about watching sport is that you find yourself merging with your heroes. You don’t just imagine yourself in their shoes; it’s more visceral than that. A kind of transference takes place which, at particularly dramatic moments, resembles an out-of-body experience. You become them and their failures and triumphs become yours. Weirdly, this feeling is more powerful when watching a team sport like football than an individual sport like tennis, even though, logically, it should be more diluted. You find yourself identifying with one player, then another, switching around according to whoever’s in the thick of the action. It’s as if you’re a mercurial demon in a horror film, flitting from one host to the next. I’ve never experienced this more powerfully than when watching England battle their way to the semi-finals in Italia 90.
Another supernatural thing that happened during that campaign was that the England players seemed to grow as they progressed through the tournament. I mean literally grow in size. Even though they were tiny black-and-white figures on my French television set, no bigger than matchstick men, they loomed before me like giants. And the more heroic their efforts, the greater their stature. No wonder Chris Waddle kicked the ball over the bar during the penalty shoot-out with West Germany. By that time, he was 50 ft tall and, to him, the goal must have seemed no bigger than a postage stamp.
When I told my father about this, he said he’d experienced the same sensation during England’s 1966 World Cup campaign. Needless to say, our victory over West Germany in the final — which he witnessed in person at Wembley — confirmed his love affair with the national team, just as our performance in 1990 cemented mine. I’ll be watching the Euros with my three sons this month and I fervently hope England does well enough to light the same fire in them. Once it has been lit, nothing can extinguish it and, yes, a lifetime of disappointment awaits. But what misery, what pain! There’s nothing quite like it. Whither thou goest, I will go, forever and ever, amen.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.