We knew England weren't going to win the World Cup. No matter how many times we claimed that football was coming home, no matter how many memes we made, we knew our World Cup could only end in glorious defeat or a blazing dumpster fire of recrimination. Gareth Southgate will return from Russia to a few desultory waves and a thumbs up from border security, as opposed to the other option of being flown back to a secret location so as to avoid a furious mob of sunburnt dads.
How did we know England weren't going to win the World Cup, despite their beautiful run to the semi-finals? Because everything we know about English football suggested this would be the case. England have failed to win the World Cup before, and they will fail again. They must fail because they are England. To prove this beyond all reasonable doubt, here are all the times England have failed to win the World Cup since our grandads fluked it in 1966, ranked from least to most ridiculous.
West Germany 1974 and Argentina 1978
Boring. England didn't qualify, failing at the World Cup on a technicality and thus denying us the angst, anger and strange euphoria of embarrassing ourselves on the world stage.
The only other tournament for which England failed to qualify, this was at least amusing to the extent that England lost 2-0 to the Netherlands in their penultimate qualifier – Ronald Koeman curling in a beautiful free kick after avoiding a red card for one of the best professional fouls of all time – before manager Graham Taylor approached the fourth official and said with all the weary resignation of a post-Thatcher coal miner: "Just saying to your colleague, the referee's got me the sack. Thank him ever so much for that, won't you?"
When Taylor chucked in the towel not long afterwards, The Sun – who had been calling him a "turnip" for months – superimposed his face onto a turnip with the headline "That's Yer Allotment". An iconic failure.
An England team including faded technicolour legends like Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, then reigning world champions, lost fair and square to West Germany in the quarter-finals. Dull, respectable failure.
In a tournament overshadowed by the Falklands War, England went out in the second group stage – this back when international tournaments were formatted by logistical and mathematical savants – after back-to-back goalless draws against West Germany and Spain. Having breezed through the first group stage with three wins, The Three Lions ended the tournament unbeaten and still didn't make it to the knockout rounds. Quite a feat.
While there was a certain sort of indulgent self-loathing and inverse schadenfreude to watching England bomb out at the group stage without a win in Brazil, Roy Hodgson's side made even magnificent failure feel joyless.
Hodgson's reward for giving Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard one of the most moribund valedictory tours in the history of international football? The opportunity to lead England to Euro 2016, where they lost humiliatingly to Iceland, leading BBC Radio 5 presenter Danny Baker to go on one of the most memorable Twitter rants ever with the words: "You useless, over-paid, over-indulged, mollycoddled shits… England footballers each and every one of you and your fucking manager are a fucking disgrace." Can’t argue with that.
The tournament that left every child in the country wanting to grow up to be Michael Owen – in hindsight, further evidence that children are idiots – England's performance at France '98 felt semi-respectable at the time.
Despite losing to Romania at the group stage – this before the Romanians bleached their hair blonde for good luck and immediately went out to Croatia in the knockouts – England made it through to the Round of 16 and were given a tough draw against Argentina. Owen scored a wonder goal to put Glenn Hoddle's side 2-1 ahead after a quarter of an hour, slaloming through the entire Argentine defence to score.
Unfortunately Argentina equalised through Javier Zanetti, and David Beckham – back in his "gelled middle-parting" era – was sent off for a feeble retaliatory flick of the boot after some masterful shithousing from Diego Simeone. Sol Campbell thought he'd won it with a header late on, which was quickly disallowed because Alan Shearer had elbowed the goalkeeper in the face.
England went out on penalties, David Batty missing the crucial spot kick while looking like an extremely haggard future version of the time-travelling kid from Bernard's Watch. Beckham took most of the flack back home in the following months, at least until Hoddle was relieved of his job for suggesting that disabled people had sinned in a former life.
England going out of the World Cup on penalties is going to be a recurring theme here, and given that losing on penalties is inherently funny, it's relatively hard to choose between Germany '06 and France '98 in terms of how farcical England's exit was. Germany '06 just edges ahead in the rankings on account of Wayne Rooney being red carded after stomping on Ricardo Carvalho's balls.
Not helped by then-Manchester United teammate Cristiano Ronaldo appealing for him to be sent off – with Ronaldo's triumphant wink making the top ten of every subsequent World Cup's Most Shocking Moments compilation – Rooney could only watch on from the sidelines as Lampard, Gerrard and Jamie Carragher missed from the spot in what must go down as one of the most terrible penalty shoot-outs of all time.
South Korea and Japan 2002
We all, as children, loved David Seaman. With his rich Yorkshire brogue, his booming laugh and his 1970s porn star aesthetic, he was a hero for a more innocent time, when looking like the lovechild of Harold Wilson and Ron Jeremy was no obstacle to popular acclaim. He was the nation's rock, England's Mr Dependable, a man so reliable they called him "Safe Hands".
Then, at the World Cup in 2002, Seaman was lobbed by Ronaldinho from 40 yards and England lost 2-1 to Brazil in the quarters.
Italia '90 was an all-round iconic tournament for England, and the closest the national team has come to reliving the triumph of 1966. It was also one of the most magical failures in the history of English football. Star striker Gary Lineker – as he is reminded literally every day on Twitter – genuinely shit himself in a group-stage stalemate with the Republic of Ireland.
Having got through the group and beaten Belgium and Cameroon on the way to the semis, England drew with West Germany and the stage was set for them – this back when it was still a novelty of sorts – to lose in heartbreaking fashion on penalties.
In the meantime, England were reliant on the idiotic genius of Paul Gascoigne. Having nearly drowned in the sea after getting smashed on a yacht earlier on in the campaign, he contributed to a moment of football folklore which remains embedded in the national psyche. Gazza's tears, which flowed salty down his cheeks after he'd scythed down Thomas Berthold for a yellow card which would have seen him suspended for the final, have been the subject of documentaries, comedy sketches, songs and artwork in the time since. Italia '90 was the tournament when the cultural cachet of England failing to win the World Cup began to outweigh that of actually winning.
South Africa 2010
It is hard to overstate just how hilarious England's efforts at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa really were. Emile Heskey, on the back of a season in which he had netted five goals in 42 appearances for Aston Villa, featured in all four of England's games and failed to score once, while also injuring one of the team's best defenders, Rio Ferdinand, in training.
In England's first group match, against the USA, first-choice goalkeeper Rob Green spilled a Sunday League shot from Clint Dempsey into the back of his own net. In the subsequent goalless draw against Algeria – without exaggeration, one of the worst games of football ever contested – England were jeered off the pitch by their own supporters, and Wayne Rooney broke the fourth wall to basically call us a nation of dickheads.
John Terry tried to lead a revolution against wizened Hank Hill lookalike Fabio Capello, but was forced into an embarrassing climbdown when it turned out none of his teammates liked him enough to back him. This was, after all, only a few months after Terry had been accused of having an affair with the girlfriend of former teammate Wayne Bridge. Then, to top it all off, England drew Germany in the first knockout round. There wasn't even the dignity of an early exit on penalties, with the referee casually ignoring a goal from Frank Lampard on the way to a crushing 4-1 defeat.
When it comes to legendary pop culture moments, the Hand of God beats Gazza's tears as the best thing football has to offer. Diego Maradona – who, by some accounts, had already been smashing cocaine for several years before Mexico '86 – sent England out of the tournament by leaping into the air and blatantly punching the ball over the line. Maradona, who stands at 5'5, out-jumped England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to slap a nation’s dreams out of the skies, and neither the referee nor the linesman saw anything wrong with it. We can pinpoint the exact moment the World Cup forever turned to shit for England, and it is when a small man with a large chop habit balled up his fist and pummelled that goal into the back of the net.
This was also arguably the moment that birthed modern England. It swept away our faith in justice and fairness, set the tone for our collective outrage, filled us with a seething rage for which there was no direction, and shattered our trust in other human beings. The second the Hand of God was given as a legitimate goal, we decided we could no longer have nice things in this country. Why bother, when it could all be taken away by something as simple as a cheeky handball.
This is for those of you who – just for a minute there – really thought it was coming home, despite all of the above.
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