What is hope? That small sparkling feeling of potential glory. The breath that catches in your chest before a first date. The flutter of anticipation before a job interview, an exam. We stitch our lives together on undulating waves of hope. Without it there is no point. We string one hope into another, and with that we create momentum. Fulfilled hope is the greatest feeling in the world.
What is the opposite of that, though? What is the feeling of crushed hope? Friends: it is following the England football team through a major international tournament:
Here are our marvellous English lads, our big brave boys, our large football sons. Don’t they look resplendent. Don't they look smart in their suits. Do you hear that sound humming gently in your ears? And did those feet / in ancient time / walk upon England’s moun–tains green.
Here we are, now – pre-tournament, June 2018, and we love them, our huge English boys; we love them with all our heart. Look into the eyes of Kieran Trippier:
You love him, don’t you? Now. For now. But when he shanks a back-pass to Nick Pope during a quarter-final against Germany and Mario Gomez nips in to score, and suddenly an edgy 0-0 turns into an uphill 0-1 battle, a capsized boat we cannot overturn, 25 minutes of desperate bombing forward in search of an equaliser, five minutes of added time, push, push, push, one final chance of the game, it falls to Kane— WIDE from Kane, and England’s hopes fall once again from glory, And Everyone Collapses To The Pitch.
You know that, then, that moment, that premonition I just had: look at Kieran Trippier with those eyes, now, knowing he side-footed England out of a tournament with a momentary lapse in concentration:
You hate him, don’t you? You hate Kieran Trippier, and I do too. Such is the nature of this hope: heroes-in-waiting now, villains-in-reality later. This summer I will spit in the air and curse Kieran Trippier’s name. But for now: I genuinely want him to win! I love him! Look at his suit! I love you, Kieran Trippier!
Anyway, this photo is revealing. There are cliques at play here, and personalities. Look closely enough and you can see the fragile male bonds that make up this squad: you can see who will perform for us, and who will fail. I can look into the eyes of all of these men and tell you which of them will ruin our chances at the tournament this year. You look at this photo and see reflected back at you the glossy shimmer of hope: I see, only, potential despair. Let’s jump in, three at a time:
DANNY WELBECK, PHIL JONES, JORDAN PICKFORD
Danny Welbeck tries, and that is his role in the squad. He is there to try hard. Danny Welbeck’s game isn’t about finesse, or touch, or exquisite finishing, or power or pace. If "Trying" were a quantifiable Football Manager stat, Danny Welbeck would be the only true 20 on the planet. "Look," Gareth Southgate says, as Jesse Lingard over-floats a cross because he’s thinking about Snapchat. "Look how hard Danny is trying. Why can’t you do that?" 'Here is what a mortal does when he tries as hard as it is possible to try,' Danny Welbeck’s existence tells us. 'Think what you, actual professional footballers, could achieve if you tried as hard as him.' Danny Welbeck knows his role in life. His failure is there to inspire. His smile tells us this.
Phil Jones and Jordan Pickford, however, fill me with dread. Have you ever seen two men give more of a vibe of "asked to be in charge of the emergency exit on an EasyJet flight so, inexplicably, changed into suits and decided to bounce it despite repeated requests to sit down"? These two men are the bedrocks on which the English defence is built, and I’m pretty sure I could distract Phil Jones with a pull-your-thumb-off magic trick, nip around him while he’s holding both temples and screaming "HOW, THOUGH!!" then slide it between Jordan Pickford’s legs after pointing and telling him his shoes are untied. I love you, my glorious English dipshits.
DELE ALLI, MARCUS RASHFORD, KYLE WALKER
Dele Alli is going to be England’s first scorer at this football tournament and I will tell you why: Dele Alli is determined to be the first footballer in history to do a Fortnite dance at the World Cup. Dele Alli is going to score two goals against Tunisia in a performance World Cup pundits will describe as "Zidane-esque", and he will do it purely because he wants to do both that L-to-the-head loser dance and floss on the biggest stage in the world. Dele Alli will score against Panama then finish the tournament as England’s top goalscorer with three, and he will do it just so he can pull his shirt up and advertise his Twitch channel. I am not wrong about this. Look into Dele Alli’s eyes and tell me I am wrong about this.
Marcus Rashford honestly looks like he's been paired with Kyle Walker "because you’re good at maths" and keeps stoically trying to teach him fractions while Kyle Walker relentlessly asks him "HAVE YOU EVER KISSED A GIRL?" Marcus Rashford is staying up at night, fretting about Kyle Walker's GCSEs. Kyle Walker comes to his house for a revision session and somehow ends up breaking his entire PlayStation. Marcus Rashford's own grades are slipping because he keeps spending time trying to teach Kyle Walker to divide. Kyle Walker scrapes a C and thanks Marcus Rashford by WhatsApping the whole school and telling them he wets the bed. Marcus Rashford has to move towns to go to a different sixth form.
FABIAN DELPH, JAMIE VARDY
Fabian Delph has somehow gone to Manchester City, and in his time on the bench turned into one of those smooth-voiced Soundcloud lads who does Instagram Live "agony uncle" sessions that your girlfriend follows from a secret burner account, and Jamie Vardy is the man who ruins three consecutive summer weddings this year by getting his arse out while the best man is doing an emotional speech about a dead father who can’t be here today. One appearance between them.
NICK POPE, GARY CAHILL, JOHN STONES
Gary Cahill has somehow U-turned from "Geography teacher who keeps threatening to hit you with his belt" ("But the law, sir!" "I know about the law, son. And I know how to fucking avoid it, too. There are corners in this school CCTV can’t reach.") to "quite sound teacher who accidentally walks in on you all having a pint after your AS Level results and laughs along while posing for a selfie with the popular kids", and frankly I think him mellowing in such a way is a sign of weakness and failure, and he should be sent home immediately. Gary Cahill is there to put a hard two-footer in on any under-25 who turns up to training in reflective or coloured boots while saying "pick that out", and he’s not there to be a sound fatherly shoulder who occasionally comes on as a defender. This weakness will cost us when he comes on as a 110th minute substitute to shore up the defence and ends up getting turned for the equaliser before missing a penalty in the resultant shoot-out. You’ve lost it, Gary.
John Stones turns up to take your sister out one day and wins your dad over by having a car and knowing about stocks.
Nick Pope grew two feet in one year and is in constant agony as a result of his skeleton constantly screaming, but he’s overcome it to be the Archery Club captain at the University of Bristol for five consecutive years while he finished his PhD, and good on him, frankly, good on him. He will not make a single appearance at this tournament.
ERIC DIER, JACK BUTLAND, RUBEN LOFTUS-CHEEK
Eric Dier wins a three-year court battle to get the words "violent offender" downgraded to just "offender" in his permanent record, after that time he sparked a police horse out stopped him getting a job in finance.
Jack Butland’s face will be reconstructed in the year 3000 by whatever their version of Time Team is, after a composite skull made from fragments found in an ancient fuccboi burial pit allows historians of the future to see exactly what a Tinder Premium user looked like.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is absolutely not here to fuck about, is he? I feel like before every game he just puts on noise-cancelling headphones and listens to nothing but white noise, and holds in his hands a well-thumbed print out of the Chelsea badge, and he goes through this mental exercise – he crushes Jose Mourinho to the size of a pea, then explodes him up to the size of the moon, then down to the size of a toddler, which he then mentally toe-punts a penalty directly at the crotch of – and only then does he find the necessary power to put in a breathless box-to-box midfield display. Absolutely no way he’s leaving this tournament without a £45 million move to PSG. He’s pissed.
I’m sorry, but Harry Maguire’s head is too large. It’s too large. It is monstrously, monstrously large. That man couldn’t just head a football, or a basketball even: he could head a small car, the man could head a tractor. If it were possible for Mesut Özil to float a delicious cross into the box using an 18-wheel truck instead of an adidas-issue football, I really think Harry Maguire's enormous face and head would make a noble attempt to bop it away before crumpling to the ground instantly, neck impacted, dead.
DANNY ROSE, JESSE LINGARD, RAHEEM STERLING
Danny Rose is pulling the exact face you pull when someone you half-know asks you for something which is just a centimetre beyond what you’re willing to give them, like when your housemate’s boyfriend asks if he can bum your last cigarette off you, or when your mate’s mate asks if he can borrow your car. Like… yeah, you can. But don’t fuck it up. This reluctance to make a firm decision and ease with which you can steamroller Danny Rose into giving you cigarettes will actually turn out to be incredibly costly in the left-back position. Imagine Ronaldo against an attitude like that. Terrifying.
My theory with Jesse Lingard is that he is actually the most important player in the England squad, because he is clearly the banter axis through which every squad-wide joke runs, and without him in the squad – and ideally on the field – the overall net happiness and joy of the England squad falls to below zero, so we need to keep – more than Raheem Sterling, more than Harry Kane, more than Dele Alli or Jordan Pickford – we need to keep Jesse Lingard happy, and safe, and uninjured, and constantly provided with a fully-charged iPad he can watch YouTube on so he can do his banter, and we will fail to win the World Cup if we fail to keep Jesse Lingard suitably happy.
I really, really, really want Raheem Sterling to score consecutive hat-tricks in every group game and, as celebration, mimic machine gun fire into the press section, but I would also very much respect him if he deliberately took every pass to him and controlled it with a perfect touch, swivelled on the spot to face the crowd, then hoofed it as hard as he could out of play, perhaps deliberately scoring some own goals along the way. Nobility in failure or success: in my eyes, Raheem Sterling cannot lose at this tournament.
HARRY KANE, GARETH SOUTHGATE
Ever since Gareth Southgate made Harry Kane England captain he has diligently called him "Mr. Southgate" and started putting the cones out at the start of every training session, I am convinced of this. "You don’t have to do that, Harry," Gareth is saying softly. "Yes Mr. Southgate." Gareth Southgate sighs. "You can just call me Gareth." Harry Kane pauses for a moment. "Yes Mr. Gareth Southgate, sir." This beautiful idiot will win us the damn thing.
JORDAN HENDERSON, ASHLEY YOUNG, KIERAN TRIPPIER, TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD
I’m glad Jordan Henderson missed out on the England captaincy because he very strongly gives me that vibe of the strange boy from your school who grew up and bought a new-build a road away from you, and now every time you go home he’s friends – actual friends – with your mum. Not like just a nice neighbour who drives her to Tesco now and again. And not like: they both like gardening, so they talk about gardening and stuff. Every time you come home Jordan Henderson is there, or just leaving, cooing "thanks for the tea, Sheila!" into the back room where your mum is doing a crossword. This is so weird, isn’t it? Is this a… sex thing? "Mum," you say. "Why is Jordan Henderson friends with you, mum?" And your mum gets really short and goes: oh, what, so I can’t be friends with Jordan Henderson, can I? And it turns into this Whole Thing. I really hope he doesn’t play.
Ashley Young eats bird shit for fun. I know he’s had a good season but he shouldn’t be trusted with anything.
Kieran Trippier asks you, lads, if you don’t mind, lads, if he joins you? Just watch the match for a little bit? Only, his mates are coming round in a bit, but he feels a bit of a prick watching the footy on his own, like. Four hours later and Kieran Trippier is still there, on your table, shouting weird banter and refusing to adhere to the round system. He ruins your stag night minutes later by battering a bouncer. For some reason he knocks on your door the next day and says sorry. How… did… Kieran… Trippier… find… you?
Trent Alexander-Arnold wins a Soap Award for portraying a Hollyoaks newcomer who wins fans after a thoughtful depiction of kleptomania. "IT’S RUINING," Trent Alexander-Arnold says, surrounded by jeans with the tags cut out, Tony off Hollyoaks pulling him into a wobbly hug, "ME LIFE!"
WILL ENGLAND WIN THE WORLD CUP THEN? WASN’T THAT THE WHOLE POINT OF THIS?
Answering those questions in order: no, yes. Every year it is someone’s fault that England lose a tournament or cup, and this year I reckon I’m saying it's………… Gary Cahill’s fault. Start making a six-foot tall, neat-haired effigy of him to burn on the first day of the season round about now.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Robert Lewandowski as a Germany striker, when he actually – obviously – plays for Poland. A lot of lads with 200 followers and 'Lingardaholic' as their Twitter name pointed this out. Thank you, boys, and please know the writer has been fired on the spot for this error.