our goalie had one slightly butterfingered moment of horror there is no reason in principle why we should not reach the semi-finals and perhaps even the finalI came to the surface yesterday morning, like most people, with a vague sense that something had not gone entirely to plan. Groggily, I reviewed the events of the previous day. I tried to put my finger on that leaden feeling in my heart.
What could it be? I had been to see Trooping the Colour at the Queen's Birthday Parade and, as everyone said at a very jolly Army lunch afterwards, it seemed to sum up so much of what was good about this country. Here were soldiers just seven weeks back from Afghanistan, performing manoeuvres with the precision of rhythmic gymnasts, boots sparkling like magnesium, busbies rippling like dominoes as they turned their heads this way and that. If you took it all together – the happy crowds, the Red Arrows streaking overhead, the beaming Queen, the balmy weather, the London parks generally surging and sprouting with the joy of mid-June – you came away with a sense that God, or someone very like Him, was in His heaven and that all was more or less tickety-boo. It was only when I got up and shambled downstairs that I started to remember how the day had ended, and the weltschmerz came down like a fine damp mist. There on the floor was the box that had contained the 50-item England supporters' housepack, and I have to say there was something a bit woebegone about it all. There were the remnants of the barbecue, the discarded streamers and plastic England hats and vuvuzelas. There were the beer bottles drained in that first triumphant libation when Gerrard scored, and there on the mat was about 10kg of Sunday papers to remind us of what happened next. When I went out on my bike I passed the shuttered pubs and bars, and on every pavement I could see the traces of football parties that had ended in gloom: the cigarette butts of England supporters frantically trying to calm their nerves, the pints left half-drunk in plastic beakers when it became clear there wouldn't be much to celebrate on Saturday night. What did you feel when the poor English goalie let that one through? What was the sensation that filled your brain, just after you leapt from the sofa with an incredulous oath or a noise like a cat being strangled or a man with an ingrown toenail being trod on by his neighbour on the Tube? What was the thought that followed the yelp? I'll tell you what that feeling was. It was a sense of desperate inevitability. It was the feeling that this is our destiny as England supporters. We get our hopes up, we big ourselves up, we flood our endocrine system with the serotonin of patriotic optimism, we bicycle-pump our poor little hearts until they can take no more – and then pfft, we run right over the thumbtack of fate. No sooner did that ball lollop gently over the England goal-line than the whole nation was wheezily engulfed by a feeling that somehow it always goes this way; and that, for whatever reason – selling off the school playing-fields, too many foreign players in the Premier League, inadequate preparation for penalties – we lack the killer instinct of other footballing nations. That, pretty much, was the theme of the Sunday paper football commentariat. We'd muffed it, we'd fluffed it, we'd contrived no more than a draw with a nation whose main sport is not even Association Football, they told me as I ate a morose bowl of muesli. We'd been shown up by a bunch of yee-haw amateurs, not one of whom would be picked to play for one of the top English clubs, they sniffed. Heskey had missed a sitter, Rooney was off-form, and as for poor Green, the goalie, he couldn't catch a cold. Lower and lower sank my spirits, and a black despair enfolded me until I looked again at the match reports, and I compared them to the actual match I had watched. And I found myself starting to object. Hang on a mo, I thought. OK, so our goalie had one slightly butterfingered moment of horror. But that ball was travelling faster than you think, and it was bouncing in a disconcerting way. Many years ago, I was briefly asked to play in goal in a school team, in the hope that I would stop accidentally fouling people (whenever I mounted what I believed was a perfectly fair challenge, the other players kept falling over and crying), and I can tell you that these things are much harder than they look. Robert Green recovered to make a fine save and, when you review the whole game in your mind, you can see there were long passages when England were totally brilliant, passing the ball among themselves with an efficiency that was positively German, setting up one scoring opportunity after another. Rooney's long shot at goal shows how dangerous he is, and to my untutored eye Glen Johnson, Ledley King and Steven Gerrard were among the best of an amazingly gifted bunch. And let's face it, we didn't lose to America, as we did in 1950. We drew, and we had much the better of the game. We may have got off to a slow start in this World Cup, but then England wouldn't be England if they didn't put their fans through agony, and if we have lured the others into a false sense of security, then so much the better. We can still do it, folks. We can still come out top of this group, and, according to my son, who knows about these things, there is no reason in principle why we should not reach the semi-finals and perhaps even the final. And if we can reach the final, why then, anything can happen. As I write these words I can feel my emotions re-hitching themselves to the wagon of the England football team. I can feel my chest starting to tighten again with excitement at the thought of redemption in the Algeria match, and as the great optimistic bicycle-pump fastens on the valve of my heart I can feel the inflation begin all over again. Truly, my friends, despair is not the problem. I can live with the despair. It's the hope I can't stand.