Through childhood and adolescence, the autumn brings the excitement and apprehension of the new school year: new uniform, new lace ups, the promise of a future, uncertain though it may be. When I finished university, I remember a distinct feeling of disappointment as the autumn approached. What now? Will every month be the same as the last? At least there was still the beginning of the new football season.
If someone were to ask me how I spent my summers, the books I read, the fashions I liked (or didn’t) with each passing year, I would have little to no recollection. If you asked me where I was (and who I was) during a football tournament, I think I could tell you with a great degree of accuracy. There is something melancholic about the end of a large tournament, maybe to do with measuring life in trophies and seasons, or the way it signals that the end of summer is approaching. I look back on tournaments with the nostalgia non-football fans might feel for – I don’t know – royal weddings, general elections or solar eclipses.
Something strange happens to fans when they watch football. Even more so when watching the national team. For many, as their team progresses through a tournament, superstition takes over. They have to wear the same shirt (unwashed) as last time, or be in the same place to watch the game. The weather’s the same – an omen surely? Is the match on the BBC or ITV? In the 1998 World Cup, England even had their own faith healer. But Eileen Drewery couldn’t stop them losing to Argentina on penalties in the second round and was among the reasons Glenn Hoddle got sacked as manager the following year.
A rainy Tuesday in London was the backdrop to England v. Germany. England may have had home advantage but Germany had already won the battle of the brands: in order to prevent them going to Nike, Adidas have provided the German team with a lavish temporary home at the Adidas campus in Herzogenaurach. After a steady first half for both teams, Raheem Sterling scored in the 75th minute. When Germany’s Thomas Müller broke through on goal in the 82nd minute I held my breath, but he pulled his shot wide. Minutes later, Harry Kane scored England’s second and decisive goal. The current England squad isn’t so burdened by the nation’s history with Germany on the pitch or off, but the win felt poignant nevertheless.
Many Scotland fans will now lend their allegiance to Anyone But England. When Andy Murray was asked in 2006 who he would be supporting in the World Cup he cheekily replied: ‘Whoever England are playing against.’ The riposte caused tennis fans to brand Murray ‘anti-English’, a label which took some time to shake. If he made the comment now I think it would be more readily accepted. After years of Conservative government that very few people in Scotland voted for, why not Anyone But England?
‘He can look like God’s gift to the Union Jack soccer hooligan,’ Karl Miller wrote of Paul Gascoigne in July 1990, ‘and yet he can look sweet … He is sure to suffer from the intensified media build-up and cut down that awaits him. But at present, in his early twenties, he is magic, and fairy-tale magic at that.’ The LRB dedicated a front cover to Gascoigne’s tears in Turin in 1990. This year the England midfielder Phil Foden seemed to have dedicated an entire haircut to Gascoigne in an attempt to re-create his ‘Euro 96 vibes’. Foden claims it was inadvertent but doesn’t seem to mind the nickname ‘Stockport Gazza’. Gascoigne has reminded everyone that he was a better player ‘even when drunk’.
As they kick off, I’m thinking about England. I’m thinking I don’t care as much as I used to. The game is slow. I’m trying to tune out a man at the table behind, loudly asking no one but excited at the sound of his own voice: ‘Why is Sterling playing? Bring on Jack Grealish.’
Three weeks after the season ended, the Euros – postponed from last year and still confusingly branded as ‘Euro 2020’ – are about to start and the last couple of months have also seen the finals of the FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League, and the announcement and rapid abandonment of a European Super League. If that last sentence leaves you exhausted, spare a thought for the players. Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t the only one missing the Euros because of an injury. The world stopped but football’s governing bodies barely took a minute. Money and greed, we go again.
Maybe it’s the patriarchy, maybe it’s the salaries, maybe it’s the bloated egos and the time spent wasted rolling around on the grass complaining. Even when you loathe the opposition there’s still admiration for any woman playing at a competitive level.