The FA Cup final is over, the sticker album is out, squads have been announced and you may have even seen the first England flag flying out of a car window – it’s time to start looking forward to the World Cup.
There is no unifying force like it. A country so fractured politically and so divided along strict lines when it comes to club football unites as one for a brief period. There’s a sense in the air, that this might finally be our time. People slip off from work early, school teachers put a match on during lessons and some might even share a smile on the tube.
The magic of the cup isn’t strictly limited to the FA Cup. The World Cup’s convivial spirit brings us all together and for many of Russia’s flaws as a host nation, at least there won’t be any kick-offs at stupid o’clock this year.
Friday 21 June 2002 remains my clearest England memory at an international tournament. Kick-off at 7.30am, the nation had not collectively risen so early for years. David Beckham, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes… it was finally time to beat the most celebrated footballing nation on earth.
My school wouldn’t budge; you had to arrive for normal registration time, but the football would be on television in the hall so you wouldn’t miss out. We had a clear plan: watch the first half at home, then dash to school in the interval to be ready for the second half.
Owen pounced on a defensive mistake to put England 1-0 up while the nation spilled its cereal on living room floors. We were then brought back down to our soggy carpets when Rivaldo equalised just before half-time as Sol Campbell’s outstretched leg was half a centimetre too short to block the shot. No time to ponder on that, we sprinted to the car and made it to the school gates in record time for the second half.
Great idea, I thought, but it looked like 300 other children had the same idea. I had to settle for a space on the floor some distance away from the television that was not much bigger than my laptop screen. Working out what was happening in the match was a game of Chinese Whispers. Those towards the back squinted to no avail and were relayed information, often inaccurate, with a one-minute delay.
Even on a screen so small I made out the red card that the referee held aloft to Ronaldinho shortly after he lobbed Seaman from 40 yards. The atmosphere in the room changed – there truly was no better time to beat Brazil than now. I joined in the occasional cheers and sighs despite not really knowing what was happening up front. I echoed the collective groan at the full-time whistle.
“Back to class as normal now,” the teachers said. How did they expect everything to go back to normal when my heart had just been torn to pieces?