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Mark Steel: England's World Cup is like Brexit... if it doesn't like the outcome, it can always call for it to be re-run in 2020

Change tact: England player Eric Dier trudges off the pitch after his side’s 1-0 defeat to Belgium
Change tact: England player Eric Dier trudges off the pitch after his side’s 1-0 defeat to Belgium

By Mark Steel

Here's an idea for how the football authorities could make the World Cup compelling - even for people who resolutely take no interest in it.

When the players feign an injury, howling and clutching a foot to hold the game up before getting up and running about as normal, the referee should allow the other team to inflict the amount of pain he was pretending to be in.

The effect the games have on human behaviour is one reason why the competition should be studied by everyone - even if you hate football.

A player will wave their hands and stare in disbelief, complaining to the referee, "How can you decide I wasn't fouled, based on repeatedly watching the incident in slow-motion from seven angles, rather than on the way I clutched my face and rolled 300 yards out of the stadium?"

But the tournament is also crucial for anyone studying history and politics. For example, England's past World Cup failures were nothing to do with football and more to do with Mr Turton, a teacher in my junior school. "Other countries are grateful to us, for showing them how to run things in a civilised way," he'd tell us.

Generations were brought up like this, to believe we were naturally the best because we were England. So, at each World Cup, instead of hoping the team does all right, there was a sense we ought to win, unless something disturbs the natural order. This was despite our record at World Cups being roughly the same as Denmark.

The expectations have been completely irrational, as if there was a competition for which country has the longest name and everyone yelled, "This time, I feel England has a really good chance against Lithuania." This could also make the atmosphere among England fans more angry than joyful, with contests to see who was most patriotic by turning their house into the biggest St George's flag.

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So, the players would be struck with fear, strangled by the certainty that whoever made a mistake would have effigies made of them that were exploded in town squares while the mayor danced naked to ensure the gods brought locusts and maggots upon him for his sloppy back-pass.

Frank Lampard and Gary Lineker discuss the social and psychological reasons why England players have underperformed, as pundits in the build-up to a game, until you expect Alan Shearer to say, "The trouble is, Gary, a false notion of superiority flowing from economic and naval 19th century global dominance, created anxiety disorders that made it difficult to cope with any team playing five in midfield. So, it's no wonder we lost to Iceland."

Gradually, the myth of natural dominance has been replaced by a more realistic sense of where we are, and a national mood of, "Bloody hell, we've beaten Tunisia, how have we managed that?"

Instead of assuming we can beat anyone, before the Belgium game half the country was hoping we'd come second in the group "because then we'll play either the Isle of Man, or the South Pole, in the next round and Atlantis in the quarter-final, who won't like the dry conditions and that gives us a chance of staying in it for a while."

It means England has its most likeable and positive team for decades. Because a calm sense of our true position improves the country.

So, if you want England to do well, say, "They've done ever so well to get this far", pretend to ignore the games altogether and maybe Harry Kane's neighbours should write to him, asking if he's all right as they haven't seen him in the area. Whereas those still yelling, "Don't bother with evidence, we'll win because we're England", make us less likely to succeed.

If you had to guess, you might say the percentage of people who think like this comes out at roughly 52%. And the number who have accepted a more measured stance is about 48%.

And even if England win, they'll spend the next two years demanding a second World Cup, on the grounds that no one understood the rules of this one and, in any case, it was only advisory.

Belfast Telegraph


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