Here we are, then, about to watch the World Cup in Russia. Where Italia '90 was defined by Gazza's tears, France '98 by the dream of the "Rainbow Nation" and South Africa 2010 by the constant hum of vuvuzelas and extremely patronising ITV commentary, the build-up to Russia 2018 has been dominated by headlines like: "EX-MILITARY HOOLIGANS TRAINED IN MMA WILL BEAT UP EVERYONE YOU LOVE WHILE FILMING IT ON A GO-PRO", "RUSSIAN ARMY THROWS YOUR DAD IN A LAKE" and "ENGLAND FANS 'CHOKESLAMMED INTO BORSCHT' IN SHOCKING HD FOOTAGE".
For that reason – and fair enough, really – many of us will experience the World Cup from home this summer. Still, whether you're one of the dauntless souls going to Russia, or one of the Radler-suppers sitting in a deckchair at an outside viewing party, here are all the people you're going to hang out with while watching Literally The Most Important Tournament on Earth™:
"Cris-ti-ano Ron-al-do plays for Real Ma-drid," your boyfriend is saying loudly, in the same tone he uses to order food at a foreign restaurant. You are, with all the restraint you can muster, just trying to watch the game. "... Spain need to stop him from scoring," he says encouragingly, thinking he's involving you. "The Spanish are playing 4-3-3, but we can get into the complicated stuff later."
You turn, for what feels like maybe the final time, and gently remind him that you have two dozen caps at international level for England Women. He stares back blankly, then says: "I get it. If football isn't your thing we can just watch something else." A little later he confuses Olivier Giroud for Eric Cantona. It's time you left him.
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"If Wilshere's not in the squad, I'm not fuckin' watching," yer da's saying, firmly rustling a newspaper while he shits. Yer da, who is still in his forties somehow, but whose heart is medically in its seventies, thinks footballers with flash boots "want hanging".
"Wilshere's the one lad with the passion to win this World Cup," yer da's saying, "and instead they've gone and picked Raheem Sterling because of political correctness, cultural Marxism and left-wing media bias – not that I have a problem with him."
It is 15 minutes into England's first group-stage game against Tunisia, and yer da is screaming so hard that his entire body is shaking. He is draped in a St George's flag, his skin is volcanic, he has a face like Ray Winstone in the bet365 adverts crossed with one of Danny Dyer's Deadliest Men. He hasn't had a piss that lasted less than ten minutes since 2008. Immediately after Sterling scores the opener, he turns to you with tears in his eyes. "You won't be allowed to wear these anymore," he says, touching the fabric of the flag with reverence. "The government wants to make them illegal, I saw it on Facebook." You love him, but he needs help.
"Come on Eng-land! Come on Eng-land!" is the chant that will ruin every quiet night out for non-football fans across the country between June and July. Your city's financial workers seem to have multiplied tenfold, the bar staff have turned on the game very grudgingly, and the air reverberates with the insipid sound of badly choreographed football songs from a room full of people who couldn't pick Taribo West out of a lineup. You are not in hell, but you are in purgatory, and here in purgatory, men in loafers keep asking you if Wayne Rooney is playing.
This is the thing about international football fans: for the vast majority of the time, they do not exist. Sure, there are the die-hards who rack up thousands of air miles just so they can watch pointless away matches against Slovenia and Lithuania in the qualifiers, but most of the people cheering on their national team this summer will do so because of patriotic groupthink. Everyone in your office has been allowed out to watch your country draw 0-0 with a nation you forgot played football, so you might as well sing your national anthem when everyone else does, lest you're accused by one of the aforementioned die-hards of hating your country. As for whether you win or lose, many of the people shouting nationalistic slogans at the bar's widescreen telly could not give less of a shit. This game – like their fleeting love for their country – will cease to exist the moment the final whistle goes.
"I just really feel that Senegal are going to bring something special to the tournament, especially if they use Sadio Mané as a roaming winger-come-false-nine." This is the sort of comment which, without even a trace of irony, comes out of the mouth of the hipster nationalist – football fans who love nothing more than showcasing obscure knowledge.
Decked out in an XL Senegal home shirt from the 2002 World Cup – there is a considerable overlap between hipster nationalists and shirt fanatics, but more on them later – this guy can recite the entire "History" section of the Senegal national team's Wikipedia page and is trying hard to learn Wolof for "man on". Ask him to name his hero and he would say slowly and solemnly: "Papa Bouba Diop, obviously."
Senegal go on to lose all three games at the group stage, failing to score in any of them. Sadio Mané is shown a straight red in their opening match and suspended for the remainder of their brief run in the competition. "No stress, Poland were my second team anyway," the hipster nationalist says, having made a quick change into his old Jakub Blaszczykowski Dortmund top. Poland crash out at the Round of 16, after which he burns an old Szczęsny training top until it chars and curls to the size and shape of one single black Pringle, which he then eats during an emotional four-viewer Instagram Live.
The England Band
So you've actually made it to Russia and found yourself a decent bar in the middle of a city square somewhere, with England's opener against Tunisia on the telly in the corner. It is there that you make a terrible realisation. It isn't right-wing hooligans trained in MMA who are going to ruin your enjoyment of the World Cup, or even your country's soul-crushing elimination on penalties. It is something much, much worse: The England Band.
It is just over an hour into the match, and you have already heard The Great Escape theme tune parped out of a trombone on 32 separate occasions. You have broken out in a cold sweat, you are huddled in your chair, you are rocking back and forth while gripping your legs like you’re on the most extreme comedown of your life. You slowly turn around to face your tormentors and see a man in a bucket hat raising a trumpet to his lips. Ah, sweet relief, he's honking out Rule, Britannia for only the 23rd time.
"The Nigeria shirt from USA '94 is a stone-cold design classic, no question. It's great to see their new World Cup jersey pay homage to the distinctive white-and-black trim on the old kit – it gives the whole thing that authentic retro feel."
It's a football kit, for fuck's sake, not a Picasso. Nobody cares about the artistic process, nobody cares about the legacy of 90s football shirts. This conversation is about as likely to win you friends as admitting that you think the England band is misunderstood.
(Author’s note: This is literally me. I talk about football kits being "design classics" and care about the legacy of 90s football shirts. I do not think the England band is misunderstood.)
People who aren't really into football
"I just never really got into football, you know? I mean, it's 11 men kicking a ball about and the other 11 men trying to get it off them. The World Cup seems like a waste of time to me, to be honest. It's really just an excuse for jingoism and an unhealthy obsession with national identity."
Yes, yes, good. It's the World Cup, though, mate. This is a tournament so fantastic and delirious it once made OG Ronaldo shave his head into the shape of some pubes. If nothing else, enjoy the supermarket beer offers.
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"If you ask me, England beating Morocco and Panama at the group stage – and being robbed blind by refereeing bureaucracy against a frankly pathetic Belgium side – is definitive proof that Britain is better off outside the EU and that we can ultimately make a roaring success of Brexit."
"If you ask me, England beating Morocco and Panama at the group stage – and only losing to an excellent Belgium side because Fabian Delph steamed into Eden Hazard in the penalty area – is definitive proof that Britain is better off inside the EU and that we should have a second referendum on the terms of Brexit immediately."
Now that you have 25 evenings of World Cup action to fill, you decide you might as well use one of them to catch up with that old friend who literally works two minutes from your office, but you still haven't seen for two years. "So Peru beating France, that was a turn up for the books, right?" These are the first words anyone has said in five minutes, and no sooner have they been uttered than they are swallowed up by the all-consuming chasm of awkwardness between you. "Ah, didn't catch the game," he says, sipping quietly on his lime cordial, the last few minutes of Iceland's goalless draw with Croatia flashing across the faded screen. He isn’t drinking at the moment, a revelation which has sent social anxiety crawling across your skin like an enormous blood-sucking worm. It's been a while since you were at uni together and, to be honest, the camaraderie has faded a little. "Remember—" you start, then you realise you haven't had a single conversation that wasn't about remembering things with him since... well, ever.
Still, there's football, lovely football, the only thing which can bond adult men in friendship. It's sad, really, but that's the reality and there's nothing anyone can do to change it. Football, a game at which all but three or four teams are consistently awful, is the last thing the tired, resigned, miserable majority of men on this planet have in common with each other. But it was nice to see you, mate. Same again for the Euros in a couple of years, yeah? Hey, maybe we'll go to a game, ah? Delete him off Facebook when you get home. It's for the best.