When it comes to daytime TV, you get out what you put in. To see a snapshot of England as it stands on the brink of greatness once again, you’d have to have been tuned in to the ITV scheduled programming for four full hours on Friday morning. So it’s not really a snapshot at all, but God, it was worth it.
It began with the Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield-induced tears of a 10-year-old girl called Belle from Bromley. She went viral on Wednesday night, after Mason Mount gave her his shirt in the Wembley crowd and it all became rather too much for her and she could only weep into her dad’s shoulder. And here she was again, ambushed this time by a special video message from Mr Mount, and it all became rather too much for her for a second time.
From there it moved seamlessly on to three middle-aged popstars, brought back together by the power of football, and more specifically by the opportunity to appear on Loose Women, singing about how much Gareth Southgate turns them on.
Then it was time for the news, and there, inevitably, was Sir Geoff Hurst, five months shy of his 80th birthday, raising his fist to the heavens while secured into a special harness at the very top of the London Eye.
So that was that, then. Man, woman, child, father, daughter, brother, sister, son, granddad – every generation has gone loudly, certainly, and fully bats*** crazy. And maybe an intergenerational triptych spread out across ITV on a weekday morning is the absolute totality of what all this means.
There is no actual law that says these grand sporting moments that come along every decade or so cannot be allowed to pass without crowbarring open a window into the nation’s soul. That the search for meaning in it all keeps so many people in work for so very long is precisely because the search can never be over, because there is none there to be found.
A grand narrative will do, of course. As long as you show your working, no one’s going to check if the equation actually balances. Whatever anyone wishes to project onto the England football team, Harry Maguire’s forehead is wide enough to accommodate all of it.
We all know the myths and the narratives well enough by now. The idea that “Gazza’s tears baptised modern football”, for example, flushing out hooliganism and welcoming in women and children. It’s persuasive enough, but it was really Rupert Murdoch’s gigantic money hose that did that two years later.
At London 2012, a post-empire nation apparently found its identity by projecting itself on to a man called Mohamed, who was born in Somalia but who talked like a Londoner and ran like the wind.
But the brutal business of austerity was already well under way. The “Go Home” vans were on order. Even the sporting aspects of the myth are escaping their aspic, through the medium of ever-harder-to-ignore questions about doping.
The urge to rush up to Gareth Southgate’s buffet of infinite meaning and pile one’s plate high with the same old dish has already become overwhelming, and that will continue come Sunday, whatever the result.
Sport doesn’t unite; not really. It is, at best, a temporary anaesthetic against the injuries of division. For everyone who burns with hope that an England victory can light the way back to Gareth’s vision of progressive patriotism, there is somebody else going on Facebook, thrilled at the proto-aggressive prospect that “we’re gonna leave Europe but take their football with us”.
On Wednesday night’s evidence, there is also a very large number of people for whom that moment of pure sporting euphoria is also the perfect time to go on Twitter and tell Priti Patel to f*** off.
It’s abundantly clear, already, that this new, somewhat wonderful thing – having a capable football team to support – is in fact just another thing for tedious online war to be waged over.
There is no evidence – none at all – that Gareth and co, while making people feel good, are also drawing the poison from wider society. Nor is there any evidence that they can.
The Tories had their detractors in the mid-eighties. What their detractors didn’t have was a new kind of telephone through which they could mark the occasion of Gary Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland by screaming digital blue murder in all caps at Douglas Hurd.
Of course people are desperate to stand on the brink of a big cultural moment. Those on the progressive side of politics have not had much to celebrate in recent years, so an England football team packed with players who continue to fight and beat the government over racism, poverty and inequality, and in the process are redefining the entire image of what a footballer is, is a profoundly thrilling commodity – especially if you forget about the one who had a gang bang during lockdown.
Some of said people seem to think that the events on the pitch on Sunday – the tactics employed by Southgate and Mancini; the wisdom of the substitutions; even, though please God spare us, a penalty shootout – will somehow mark a moment of triumph or disaster for their political beliefs, too.
That is palpably daft. Football can be, and is, a highly effective vehicle for protest. And given that it is about the only industry in which talentless people with the right contacts really cannot get ahead, it is also a very high-profile advert for actual social justice.
But it still doesn’t change very much. Material reality does not turn on the outcome of a football match. It can’t. If it did then powerful people would have taken against it decades ago. Politicians wouldn’t clamour to photograph themselves as near to it as they can get; they’d run a mile from it.
Sport can only light the way in hindsight. The path can only be seen in the rear-view mirror. This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment to revel in, and absolutely nothing more.
It’s not about Brexit. It’s certainly not about Covid-19.
It’s about Belle from Bromley weeping on the TV twice in two days. It’s about Atomic Kitten, scarcely a day under 40 between them, quite possibly going back to No 1 with a song that has had a full two of its lyrics amended into erotic fiction about Gareth Southgate and now makes absolutely no sense at all.
And it’s also – with no disrespect to Sir Geoff Hurst, standing up there in the clouds with his carabiner on – the tantalising prospect that it might be someone else’s turn to dine out for half a century on their exploits in a single game of football.
And that’s really it. It’s the glorious, epic, giddy childishness of it all; the impossibly rare stuff that makes life worth living.