If somebody mentioned “Dele”, “Harry Kane” or “JLingz” to me a month ago, I would have absolutely no idea what or who they were speaking about and, once hearing it was in relation to football, I probably wouldn’t have cared. Four World Cup matches later however, and I could tell you all about Dele’s tough upbringing, Harry Kane’s childhood sweetheart and Jesse Lingard’s appreciation of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun. Much to my surprise, I have been utterly sucked into World Cup fever and am wholly embracing the experience.
Of course at the age of 25, I’ve seen World Cup tournaments before but it’s always been a passive experience; I’d decided it was ‘just football’ and therefore, nothing to do with me. I found the crowds of adult men and women spilling out onto the streets sporting smudged painted flags of St George on their faces bewildering and, to be honest, slightly intimidating. This, combined with my confusion over which of my inherited nationalities I was supposed to support - England or Ireland - meant that I deemed myself immune to World Cup Fever.
But this year, maybe change is afoot; there’s an air of positivity, unity and hopefulness and for once, maybe we should fling ourselves deep into the atmosphere of beer drenched shirts, “Three Lions” chants and sweaty embraces with strangers when Harry Kane scores a penalty. England flags are being proudly displayed everywhere, from houses and pubs to cars and faces, without the old connotations of racism and negativity we’ve had drilled into us. Not only are this team fresh, young and likeable but they are diverse in their backgrounds, upbringing and ethnicity, allowing the entire nation to connect with them in some way, however small. Whilst some are critical of the younger players - namely Jesse Lingard’s celebratory post-goal dance moves and social media antics - I think it injects some well-needed fun and humility back into the game, as well as showing some appreciation for fans and supporters.
One of the best feelings I’ve ever had was that time-stopping moment on Tuesday night, when Eric Dier’s penalty hit the back of the net and secured England’s place in the quarter-finals. The sound of ecstatic cheers and celebrations echoing down the streets, from house to house and pub to pub, really was quite surreal. The sheer joy in being so happy, so proud, so absolutely overwhelmed with relief that, for a moment, you lose all self control and find your limbs flailing everywhere, your voice reaching decibels you didn’t know possible and the St George’s flag that started off painted across your face now smudged across the cheek of an equally excited acquaintance. It was as if that near-three hours of gruelling, nerve-wracking, roller coaster viewing created a bond throughout the country and its happy, history-making ending is something we can always share and remember. It was the night England finally won a penalty shootout, in the most dramatic way possible.
Maybe it’s the heat from this glorious, never-ending summer weather going to our heads which is inspiring our positivity, or perhaps it’s the tenacity we’ve learned to grip onto as a result of last summer’s sadness (Grenfell, Manchester Arena and the London Bridge attacks to name just a few events). Either way, the buzz of the World Cup is a welcome change from our usual news of a messy Brexit, unwelcome Trump visits and dirty politics. Whatever your preexisting views on footballers salaries and Fifa scandals were, supporting England winning the World Cup is a movement we can all get behind.
I’ve learned that I’m allowed to speak about and participate in football, despite not having an endless knowledge of teams, players and rules. For the first time in well over a decade, I can have a conversation with my father about something which surpasses the usual limit of two sentences before we both run out of things to say to each other. Regardless of what happens when we face Sweden on Saturday, this World Cup has finally allowed me to understand and appreciate the appeal of this game: how it can unite us and bring us together, regardless of age, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class.