Supporting a football team is not a rational act. In the face of past experiences and logic there is always the hope that somehow things will be different this time. There is hope that in spite of the heartbreaks and hurt of past tournaments this is ‘our year’. At every World Cup hope springs anew.
The team is YOUR national team. It is part of your identity, part of all the funny nuances, habits, and characteristics that make up your national identity. The 11 players that take the pitch are representing you out there. While the team that is followed may be different the experience will be similar.
The way we were
My earliest World Cup memories are of Italia ‘90. As a young child the tournament in Italy seemed so exotic. Pavarotti provided the soundtrack for a World Cup that was to be my introduction to the 'world game’ and to the pain of following England.
The games linger in my memory, England needing extra time to beat Belgium, and then another extra time win over the thrilling and exciting Cameroonian team that featured 38 year old Roger Milla. As an 11 year old boy I was enthralled. The England players were my new heroes as they carried all before them with an exciting style of football. I had yet to taste defeat, never experienced disappointment with England. It was a magical time with surely only one outcome…
In the semi-final England came up against West Germany. Patriotic fever gripped the nation, heightened ahead of this match against old footballing foes. The press built up expectations and the rivalry. In the match England teased and tantalised, showing that they could match any team. My hopes soared.
Oh how naive I was. I had yet to learn the narrative that goes with being an England fan. Nerves and doubts began to set in, a deflected goal (which was seen as both unlucky, unfair) looped agonisingly over England’s goalkeeper and gave West Germany the lead. Back roared England to level the match and raise the hopes of a nation and a young boy.
As the game headed into extra-time Paul Gascoigne, England’s cheeky, charismatic star player, made a rash lunge and gave away a free-kick. The nation held its breath, if Gascoigne received a booking he would miss the final. As the referee waved aloft that dreaded yellow card the nation sighed and the player himself cried.
The teams remained locked in a draw and the match would be settled with a penalty shoutout. This seemed so simple, a shot against just the ‘keeper from 12 yards. The players huddled together in the centre of the pitch while the two 'keepers awaited them.
One player broke away from the safety of his teammates and trudged, perhaps fearfully, to face his fate. The noise of the crowd rose and the tension built as I watched. In my childlike faith I didn’t believe that my heroes could fail but first one then a second failed to score and England had lost. It was my turn to cry.
Following a team at the World Cup is a rollercoaster of emotions which will ultimately, for all but the fans of one team, end in disappointment. Fans have an emotional attachment to their team, which is likely to be developed over a number of years. They invest time and energy in following their favourite players and to learning the rituals and habits that are associated with following a particular team. When a team wins the fans share their success and joy. When a team loses the fans feel their pain.
As I have grown older (but maybe not wiser) I have learned what it means to follow England. I know that each tournament brings unbridled optimism and hype, typically fuelled by the nation’s media. I have experienced the highs as the team shows glimpses of the individual talent that the players posses. At the start of each tournament I am childlike in my hope that this time the team will live up to and surpass the glories of its past reincarnations.
But my childlike innocence is gone. I now know that sooner or later the team will lose. It may again be as a result of penalties, or it may be against an old foe, but it will happen. Ahead of each tournament I face this reality and attempt to keep my hopes in check. I prepare for the inevitable loss and brace myself for this hurt.
But it could be different this year! Maybe this time there will be no tears…