In the end, the England football team lost, as they always do, their long wait to win a trophy now stretching beyond 55 years, the hopes of another generation of fans dashed and ground into the dirt like the broken beer bottles I stepped over outside Wembley Stadium on Sunday evening.
No reflection on the futility of supporting England is going to be a barrel of laughs. Futility may not be exactly the right word because supporting the team is actually an endless loop of anxiety, humiliation and crushing defeat, periodically enlivened by hope.
There are minor differences for each generation: a decisive handball here (Mexico ‘86), a red card there (France ‘98). Often it’s a loss on penalties (various World Cups, European championships). But it is a loop nonetheless: the act of waiting for something that never happens — a Samuel Beckett play in which a team of 11 men kick a ball around and lose just when it seems they might win.
There were other striking — and familiar — elements in Sunday’s match too: the vile racist abuse of the English players who missed penalties, for example, or the ticketless fans who overpowered stewards to force themselves into Wembley Stadium.
Neither phenomenon is particularly new: racists have long gravitated to the national team to the extent that former star John Barnes was once abused by England’s own fans on a flight home after scoring a great goal. And the ticketless fans who overpowered stewards on Sunday are heirs of the chair-throwing hordes at the European championships in Belgium 21 years ago.
But there was a genuinely new element this time. England played well in successive matches! Germany were dispatched with relative ease for the first time since 1966; England blew past Ukraine and saw off Denmark in a semi-final more raucous, noisy and joyous than any match I can remember attending. They controlled the games playing, at times, scintillating, thrilling football with real swagger.
After the semi-final I left Wembley, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of maskless fans. Unable to process what I had just seen, my first thought (aside from a nagging concern that I was about to catch Covid at the super spreader event of the year) was of my grandfather and how I wished he’d been alive to see an England team playing with such verve and getting into a final.
If you love football, the European championships and World Cup can be signposts for moments in your life. Recalling past tournaments invariably brings to mind what you were doing at the time and who you were with.
In my family, it was my father and grandfather who would invariably gather around the television with my brother and me when England were playing. These experiences were usually characterised by failure, which is why the journey taken by Gareth Southgate’s team to the precipice of tournament glory has triggered so many emotions. Yes, Southgate’s men ultimately failed too, but they failed more gloriously than any England team I can remember. My father watched a couple of games with my children and me and, Sunday’s result aside, my grandfather would have absolutely loved it.
Before the start of the tournament I tried to explain the perils of being an England supporter to my kids and watched their hopeful faces grow increasingly puzzled as I warned them of the dangers of over-optimism and the need to prepare for inevitable defeat. Like them, I soon forgot this and was swept up in the march to the final, full of belief like everyone else until reality bit with Bukayo Saka’s penalty miss.
So on we go to next year’s World Cup in Qatar. Sports pundits and friends are already talking about it in hopeful terms, as if winning a tournament in 100 degree heat will be easier than one played in front of one’s own supporters.
But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Historic though it will be if England triumph next year, or any year, it’s not whether they win that should matter. It’s the journey that counts when watching England — that tortuous, maddening loop of despair laced with very occasional hope — and who is sitting next to you along the way.