It had to end this way. Whatever else we might say about the English weather, it is deeply in tune with the national psyche – the emotions of the people over innumerable generations have taken on the grey, leaden cast of their skies – and there could be no more fitting day after that final than torrential rain and thunder driving the few mournful shadows from the streets.
The fact that mere defeat has left our faith in football coming home unshaken can be slightly confusing for foreign observers. While American journalists and the Croatian national team seem to believe it’s a triumphalist brag, we know that it’s about always losing and remaining hopeful despite that. The English feel about football the way the Americans feel about beating a tiny third world nation in a war; we’ll give it our best shot, but ultimately it will all end in tears.
It can be difficult to understand the alchemical process through which the England side can transmute gold to lead. Seaman flapping wildly at Ronaldinho’s free kick in 2002. Portugal on penalties in 2004. Portugal on penalties again in 2006. Not even qualifying in 2008. Four-one to Germany in 2010. Out on penalties to Italy in 2012. Out in the group stages in 2014. Out to Iceland – a Vietnam level debacle – in 2016. Out to Croatia in extra time in 2018. And now a loss on penalties, at home, in the final.
For those of us raised on these memories and championship football – rain dripping down the back of your neck as 22 men do their best to play a full 90 minutes without the ball ever touching the floor – it’s impossible to conceive of ‘it’s coming home’ as anything other than an expression of religious faith, an inevitable final success to set against the inevitability of rather more imminent disappointment. If a lifetime supporting England has taught us anything, it is that everything is bad and will continue to get steadily worse.
What the rest of the world doesn’t quite grasp is that the mindset of the English football fan is eschatological in nature, a mirror image of judgment day: when the second coming happens, when football comes home, when all is set right with the world. Our support has more in common with the ‘long defeat’ Tolkien talks about with reference to Christianity and history – the knowledge that there will be a final, shining victory in the future – than it does with the actual expectation that it will happen in our lifetime. We take defeat in stride because our support is rooted in hope but, even more importantly, in failure.
If England were ever to win a major tournament, it would be Ragnarok. Harry Kane thundering shots into the roof of the net as Wembley erupts only makes sense in the context of utter finality and end times; with the nation cheering as wolves devour the sun and mountains crumble into nothingness.
We would have no choice but to have a national nervous breakdown. For 55 years England has sublimated nationalistic urges and the quest for glory into the pursuit of the unobtainable: footballing success at a major tournament. Actually winning something would require an entirely new national mythology overnight.
Playing the role of plucky – or sometimes downright abject – loser, however, fits right in with our national psyche. The reaction after the Italy game really does highlight that at times the English would almost prefer to celebrate failure more than success. For an illustration of this, look no further than the pundits awarding Saka’s performance a ‘10’ for a brave final miss, and Kane a ‘5’ for a successful first penalty. Calls for a knighthood for a manager who lost – with dignity, and courage, and kindness, sure – and crowdfunders for sad children who cry on television are part of the same national element that gives vast bequests to animal shelters. It is a national streak of sentimentality that without ruthless drive can be deeply debilitating.
And yet. Despite all this, despite the lessons of years of experience, despite the heartbreak and frustration and the endless tedious verses of ‘God Save the Queen’ when ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘I Vow To Thee’ are right there – we really do still believe. As one wit put it, of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have come home. And it is. Just not today.
Next year in Jerusalem – or at least Qatar.