We want England to triumph – but can we handle it? The air is thin up there

·4-min read
The immaculate Raheem Sterling, one of the modern young men, like it said in Gareth’s lovely letter, naturally connected to the values of ordinary people (PA Wire)
The immaculate Raheem Sterling, one of the modern young men, like it said in Gareth’s lovely letter, naturally connected to the values of ordinary people (PA Wire)

Ask yourself: is reaching a final and nixing the national semi-final, semi-competent hoodoo not significant enough? Beating Italy in the final will rocket England into an emotional firmament that might be in its own way unbearable. The air is thin up there. We want triumph but can we handle it?

In some weird way my own joy is diminishing round by round, counterpoised by something like vertigo; it means too much, it seems too high. Like being in love and unable to stand the accompanying awareness of that light’s shadow; it cannot last, it cannot be real. “All true love must die, alter at the best, into some lesser thing” (Yeats).

Whilst this gorgeous tournament unfurls and our beautiful team, led by the gently avuncular, best of all possible headmasters, a patriarch that shows that patriarchy need not be synonymous with misogyny, Gareth Southgate, the Great Redeemer, I watch each game alone but for the dog and the ghosts of the boy I was and the man I’ve been.

Each time, back then, awaiting, on sofas or in beer gardens, the inevitable and somehow welcome failure; a lesson in life and in disappointment. An invitation to sever my own destiny from patriotic games. To recognise that, really, actually, football means nothing at all, and that nationalism is a device that does not benefit those that belt out “Sweet Caroline” but those that wear a football shirt over a collar and tie.

I’m better at losing, I’ve had more practice. I know what losing means. When we lose, I’m Neo and I can see the digital drip of the Matrix on the lens of my perception, but when we win I’m caging my inner Alf Garnett, I’m dying to wave a flag and climb on top of a bus, dying to delve face first into the beautiful illusion of victory.

I couldn’t sleep after Denmark, I had to walk the dog, a few laps with Andy Goldstein and Jason Cundy, the “late-night-call-in” banter in my ear. But on this occasion, I got no comfort there. The next day I called up long-time mates and nervously admitted my unease. They felt it too. My mate James, who I know from Upton Park, said the jingoism is never easy, whether it’s the progressive or regressive drum that’s being beaten. He said this team is modern, beyond the gloomy tropes that we grew up with, modern young men, like it said in Gareth’s lovely letter, naturally connected to the values of ordinary people, in spite of the kid gloves and ivory towers, bounced from poverty to privilege; I know something of that strange ricochet.

My mate Karl said when personal narratives and “grand narratives” align you can create cultures and myths. When they are at odds you generate alienation. Years ago a mate of mine who’s female said that football is “male Esperanto”. This was when no England team manager would use the prefix men’s when describing his job. The world has changed, the culture has split, at least in two, possibly into more fragments than we can count.

Perhaps though football can still function as a rolling Rosetta stone, a point of connection and safe rivalry. When I see the revelry, the sanctioned unrest that carnivals permit, I do feel that there is a chaotic power summonsed by the spell of this game, by the incantations of the eucharistic jingle and national catchphrase, “It’s Coming Home”, and I wonder where it might take us.

Harry Kane has a Sun God name, he is an Apollonian geek, he is assertive and devoted, committed and sincere. What dwells in the shadow he casts? Is it some of his teammates, whether less appreciated or adored? The immaculate Raheem Sterling who had to steal fire to feel warmth, calling out media racism by comparing the reporting on two players, one white, one black, in a piece of critique worthy of Chomsky? Is it Jack Grealish, formerly of Ireland, a nation that has been a repository for Albion’s fracture and projection for as long as there have been boats and swords?

Or is it all of us, the collective “I”, aligning our individual narratives, our little lives with this glorious real time myth? Finding our triumphs and disasters, our lucky breaks and crushing injustices played out on numinous green in a rebooted cathedral beneath a scaffold arch.

Is it coming home tomorrow? And if it does, will we know what to do with it? For whose home is it now and furthermore, what is “it”? In this twilight time, squinting out of the cocoon of imposed isolation into this solar moment, can we handle glory, can we handle victory? Can we provide a home for the beautiful game and the deeper beauty that it truly rests upon?

Russell’s fee for this piece is being donated to Mama Bee in High Wycombe; mamabee.org.uk

Russell’s new theatre show, ‘Our Little Lives: Shakespeare & Me’, streams live on Wednesday 14 July at LIVE-Now.com

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