Dig out your misplaced optimism, England, it's the World Cup!

It's here again, the four yearly exercise in ambition, dreams, angst and eventual failure for anybody who takes an interest in English football.  I am a fairly poor fan, a former season ticket holder at Oxford United who nowadays seldom gets to a match but who talks a good game when required to in the pub and who follows their results with increasing surprise as they've turned into quite a formidable team.  The now obligatory affection for my team aside, as a resident of the central, south and eastern part of this island I am, of course, also a long-suffering follower of the most mercurial, frustrating, exhilarating team in the world,  the stuttering, infuriating but occasionally brilliant England.

And it hurts.

It hurts because England won the World Cup once. Because England have all the elements in place to be successful again: an established league system, a bunch of over-promoted, overpaid but also overly talented players, a football association equipped with the resources to invest in development (whether it does is moot) and a fan base which loyally follows them whatever.

And occasionally they blaze: the magnificent Italia 90, when legends were forged (regrettably, this being England, they turned out to be a troubled Geordie with feet of clay); the sacred Euro 96, when perhaps the second best England goal ever was scored (the Gazza one against Scotland. Scotland!) and when to everyone's astonishment, we humbled the mighty Netherlands; that blistering, epic night in Munich in 2001 when England ran glorious, beautiful riot over German pride.  Munich is one of those games when you just have to say the name of the city and anyone who saw the match grins uncontrollably.

Sadly, such moments come all too rarely and what should be one of the best teams in the world struggles endlessly with form, organisation, managers and performance, yet none of us can quite stop dreaming big.

I was determined to ignore this year's World Cup, primarily because it was in Bad Boy Central - Russia - but also because supporting England damages you psychologically.  I've got over Iceland in 2016 because they played well and deserved to win.  They were better than us.  But Brazil 2014?

Granted Brazil was by general acclaim The Finest World Cup Ever, with football of a standard which merited Pele's famous epithet, teams like Australia having their moment, the truly epic performance of tiny yet proud Costa Rica, the endless brilliance of the Germans (get over it, England: whatever our history, Germany is by far the best football team in the world.  They play like we should and they deserve their success.) but England were humbled. They played with leaden feet, they shambled through their group games, failed and got the waiting plane home all too soon.  So this time it was a definite decision to avoid Russia altogether.

Then I went into the newsagent and saw the wallchart.  And I looked at the fixtures.  And I thought, 'Hmm, I know we'll struggle to a likely 0-0 draw with Tunisia, then labour to a messy, unconvicing win over Panama and I know that the last game against Belgium will be a crunch game for England and that we will only just scrape into one of the knockout spots but even if we come second, that puts us up against maybe Poland or Colombia, Senegal at a pinch.  Hey, we can beat these guys on our day!  Then we're into the Quarters! And then we're only two games from the Final!  And we might face Brazil or Germany in the Semis! And...oh.'

And so it goes all over again.  The magic - indeed, mystery - of football is that, however badly your team does, this time it's going to be different.

To be fair to England - a tough call but here goes - I have read encouraging things about the rebuilding of the team including all the under-21, 19, 17, etc teams - one of which recently won its own World Cup.  England now has a style and an approach which approximates that of more mature national associations.  Gone are the days of stars doing what they want, of old school managers or of weird Swedes.  Manager Gareth Southgate has had the worst experience ever on the football stage ('Why didn't you just belt it, son?' asked his nan AND EVERY ENGLAND FAN!).  He knows how it feels and he seems to have a sense of what he's doing.  He's thinking about it and preparing - a rare departure for England.

We actually have a good shout at getting to the Quarters - that would be a significant achievement.  Anything beyond that is completely uncharted territory but then we've been there before so many times.

Just five sleeps to go, ten until England start against Tunisia.  Ten days until the irrepressible optimism evaporates and the gut-wrenching angst returns.  It will be different this time, it will.  Football is coming home, I just know it.

Karl Marx was wrong about religion.  The real opiate is very clearly this game of ecstasy, spectacle and exquisite pain.


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