This England aggregation accepted ability of amusement – and it came home | Paul MacInnes

It was the morning of the semi-final. He was walking down the street shouting “Come on England!” to no one in particular. Sitting on a nearby bench I raised my hand in solidarity. He saw me, turned round and yelled: “It’s coming home!” I hollered the words back at him and we both laughed. At last I had exchanged the greeting of the summer, one both nonsensical and chock full of meaning, with a complete stranger.

It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks back home. There has been lots ‘going on’ besides the football, which may have heightened the hysteria. But from the point Harry Kane turned home the winner against Tunisia England succumbed to football fever at a level not seen since 1996. The flags came out in earnest, not just from a sense of duty. People chucked sickies and themselves off double-decker buses. Watching the games at outdoor screenings became de rigueur and having a half-dozen pints emptied on your head a rite of passage. The shirts sold out, the memes went wild and Harry Maguire’s forehead became the most unlikely fetish since Prince Harry’s ginger beard.

At the heart of it all were those three words. But there was some ambiguity as to what exactly was coming home. Yes, there was the World Cup itself. There was a little bit in all of us that thought it might happen – probably not but might. The phrase was an expression of confidence hedged with irony, an expression recognisably English. It meant other things too, though. It expressed an enthusiasm for the football team, a sign of solidarity. These were players with whom we could identify. It was also a nod to times past and a collective happy memory. It evoked summers gone by or maybe just summer itself. Finally, when stripped out of context, “It’s coming home” was straightforwardly silly. It was just fun to say, like “garlic bread?” once was, or “Proper Bo!”

A sense of fun was an integral part of Gareth Southgate’s plan for his England team. It was necessary because this was a team who had got to the point where pulling on the three lions had seemed equivalent to donning a shirt made of lead. To throw off the psychodrama of the past decade the team had to remember what had brought themselves to this point in the first place: their love of the game. It was a good way to start again. Back home we recognised a team enjoying themselves. We also saw that, as a result, they were more committed to each other. We saw it on the pitch but also at the dart board or on social media on the back of a unicorn. They seemed to be having a laugh.

This fun had a serious point. It was intended as a building block in a platform for winning football matches. Perhaps half of England’s six matches in Russia saw it bear real fruit. The confidence that came from a team relaxed and united helped us not only to edge past Tunisia but steady ourselves late on against Colombia and quite simply cruise past a Sweden team that had been making things difficult for opponents for years. In the end, against Croatia, enthusiasm and commitment showed their limitations. The team ran out of legs and ideas. They were outfought and out-thought (also outplayed a little) by opponents with greater experience. If England want to improve on this memorable run, they will have to offer more.




An England supporter displays the slogan of the summer

An England supporter displays the slogan of the summer. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

As professionals, footballers will ultimately judge themselves by the medals on their mantelpiece (or inside their air-conditioned trophy rooms). It is arguable, however, that the enjoyment English people got from this World Cup was not in any way invalidated by the fact that we did not win it.

Football is a game. That is not to denigrate but celebrate it. A lot of claims were made during the tournament about England’s success, about what it meant or what it might achieve. Most seem a bit of a stretch. One might hope that effective set pieces could bring together the competing sides in a culture war or reunite young with old, but in reality those tensions in our country will have to be resolved by other means. Football cannot bring world peace or resolution to the Brexit negotiations however many inspirational, but yet humble, quotations from the England manager are pinned on the wall.

What a game can certainly do, though, is remind us how great it is to have fun. Life is short and much of it is hard. These recent years have been unrelentingly unpleasant. Occasions when you get lost in the moment, when you enjoy only what is around you, are perhaps rarer than they should be. Sport can provide such moments, either through playing or watching. In this World Cup we watched an England team who understood the power of enjoyment and used it to help them achieve an end. For those of us at home and in the stands, we were reminded enjoyment can also be an end in itself.

So did football ever reach its final destination? The trophy did not; that much is for sure. But for a while, something was definitely coming home. We all felt it and we all enjoyed it. We should remember the power of that simple pleasure in future. And also take more care of our bus stops.