They say familiarity breeds contempt. But as the net ripples and those celebrating wear the wrong colours, there’s a lack of animosity. I’m sat in the middle of a disused airport in Berlin, on an evening that promised storms but had yet to deliver. A cloak of darkness covers Templhofer Feld, pierced only by the occasional chant of “It’s Coming Home” and the illumination of a giant screen. As I lift my head for the final few minutes, luminous pixels form an inescapable reality, lighting the sky in an unforgiving and familiar reminder of the harshness of football. Croatia 2-1 England.
Then the storm. The response was a collective groan, louder than the response to Mario Mandzukic’s 109th minute strike. Plastic cups diluted and refilled as clouds turn mixologists. Many run for cover. Me and my mates stay put, brave it out, embracing the rain’s impeccable, mood-matching arrival. Sod’s law in action.
We’d dared to dream of history made and immortality and bank holidays and restored pride. Now, back to reality. I’ve got to cycle home and it’s pissing down. The sun’s gone, international tournament football has disappeared for another two years and my football fix will consist of the Bristol Rovers fan’s forum and Whatsapp exchanges with my dad and my mum or watching Match of the Day if I remember I have a VPN.
As the dust settles and waistcoat sells return to normal, the daydreams piercing bus journeys or queues at Lidl will be full of what could have been. What if England won the World Cup? Well, everything would be okay then, wouldn’t it? Penalty shootout demons will’ve been exercised, Brexit forgotten, pride restored. Shankly said football isn’t a matter of life and death but it’s much more serious than that. Not quite. But still, reflecting on the past month’s gorge at the buffet of football’s finest, there’s no escaping it — World Cup fever was palpable. It got us talking. And it got me thinking.
You Gave Us Something To Believe In
Ultimately, football is a few blokes kicking a bit of plastic around a field. One of these blokes, Cristiano Ronaldo, has completed a move from Real Madrid to Juventus in a deal worth close to 105 million euros. He’s 33-years-old. Taking my love of Rovers and entire childhood and adolescence out of the picture, the level of emotional involvement in said kicking-a-ball-about is ludicrous. There’s no escaping it. Attempting to justify this to non-football-adoring friends usually results in a shrug of the shoulders, a knowing smile, and a response of “well, it’s football, isn’t it?” A justified response.
Streaming the Beeb, I accidentally tuned-in to the post-match news for the first time in yonks, bemused by the format: death, death, political deception, death, football, the weather. Football’s a part of our culture, a welcome distraction. “You gave us something to believe in,” Tweeted Prince William, and therein lies the answer — it’s not about football at all. One hundred yards and the 4-4-fucking-2 provide the canvas for us to project, to emote, to dream, to decry, to believe. It might not be life or death but football, in its simplistic, chaotic brilliance, epitomises the fundamental narratives of humanity.
As Trippier curls it in the top right or Lovren elbows Kane in the sternum, heroes and villains are made. The just and unjust. Storytelling, our imagination’s most intoxicating outlet, unfolds at lightening speed as stats are read and omens recited. Individually we prey, collectively we build narratives as our mind’s eye transcends the beer soaked bars and outdoor screens, rising to form a collective community of hope, built in the hive mind of hopeful expectations. This process, too, breaks down barriers. Blokes kicking balls brings us together. The “come on’s!” and the backslaps and the “what did you think of the match?” unifying us, one VAR decision at a time.
The Green Canvas Projects Our Human Needs
And yes, it gives us something to believe in, an outlet for a society that does its best to make us feel disconnected. Nationalism and tribalism are on display and have negative connotations, but there’s good and bad. For every drunken Brit invading IKEA there’s a sense of community built, a meeting ground for expats in Berlin, a reason to reach out and message and ask and share. Football is the area chosen, the object of unbridled passion, a unifying force bringing people together. It’s better than nothing, of course, but what lies beneath?
We all want something to believe in. We all want connection. Tribalism as exclusion is deplorable but as social animals, we build our own tribes and our own communities throughout our attempt to navigate life. It might not be coming home, maybe it never will, but the World Cup fervour proves football is far from fruitless. It’s a reflection of our deepest needs. A reminder that, if we dare to believe, we’re better together than we are apart.
Now, onto the third-place playoff.