At least this time nobody has fallen into the trap of thinking England might actually win the damn thing. Nobody inside the England camp has proclaimed they are going to Russia to bring the trophy back home. And perhaps just as important, nobody in the media is feverishly backing our boys to do it. Not yet, anyway.
Instead, the mood seems restrained compared to previous tournaments, as if the penny has dropped that England have not done a great deal in the World Cup since the year – the one between 1965 and 1967 – that Jürgen Klopp has suggested we no longer mention because of the pressure it puts on the team.
Sensible advice bearing in mind England’s footballers have managed a grand total of six wins in the knockout stages of major international tournaments since, well, That Year Again. The last one was 12 years ago, against Ecuador, and if all this sounds downbeat it’s difficult, in fairness, to be a cheerleader when the most recent memory of England in a major tournament is Iceland’s Viking thunderclap, Harry Kane’s corner-taking and the mutinous chants of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” from Euro 2016.
Roy Hodgson’s reign as England manager ended within minutes of that defeat to Iceland and he spent the night in a corner of the bar of the team’s hotel in Chantilly, with nobody else around and the lights off. The next day, when he was persuaded to speak to the media, the top three buttons of his shirt were undone, his hands were trembling and his fingernails were bitten to the quick.
Alternatively, there’s the memory of Steven Gerrard at the 2014 World Cup, when England were eliminated inside a week and left Brazil before the players had even finished their course of anti-malaria tablets. Gerrard hadn’t slept much either. He was “hurting bad, broken”. England’s captain sat silently – dark smudges under his eyes, a week’s worth of stubble – staring into the distance as Hodgson talked about a “period of grieving”.
Let’s not be too negative, though. England have some talented players, and indeed a sprinkling of excellent ones, and at the time of writing nobody has been struck down by the curse of the metatarsal just yet. Yes, Gareth Southgate’s team have been drawn against Belgium, third in Fifa’s world rankings, but there are more obliging games, against Panama and Tunisia, first. If those can be won, England will already be assured of a place in the knockout stages before they meet Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard et al.
Nothing can be taken for granted, of course, given the ordeal against Iceland nudges out the defeat to the USA in the 1950 World Cup as the most mortifying result in England’s history. Likewise, it does not feel too long ago since the Sun splashed with an “E-A-S-Y” front‑page headline after the 2010 World Cup draw to let us know it would be England against Algeria, Slovenia and – to make it work – the Yanks. England stank out that tournament, too.
It does help, though, that expectations this time are more realistic. Kyle Walker has said England will need a “miracle” to get their hands on the trophy in Moscow and it puts things into context to imagine the runaround Southgate’s team would likely be given by a France XI made up of players Les Bleus have left out.
When Southgate named his squad the only controversies were the absence of Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey. Didier Deschamps, the France manager, has omitted Alexandre Lacazette, Anthony Martial and Karim Benzema, not to mention Dimitri Payet, Aymeric Laporte, Kingsley Coman and others who would be mandatory picks for most other teams.
France will take some beating but so will Brazil, Germany and all the other usual suspects. Otherwise, there will be two players in particular who are determined to make a lasting impression. Lionel Messi will be 35 when the World Cup is held in Qatar in 2022. Cristiano Ronaldo will be 37. Between them, they have won the Ballon d’Or 10 times. Yet, realistically, this will be the last opportunity these two modern greats get to make a decisive impact on this stage.
Can one of these two showmen be remembered for Russia 2018 in the same way that Diego Maradona is for Mexico 1986, Pelé in 1970 and so on? Messi was named the best player of the last World Cup. It felt generous at the time and, harsh as it may sound, the fact is we are still waiting for a truly Messi-inspired tournament.
As for England, it does not feel too outlandish to imagine Southgate’s team navigating a route to the quarter-finals. The problem is that Brazil or Germany could be waiting and that is usually the point when we are reminded, as John Cleese once put it, that the nation that invented the sport has barely seen a penny in royalties ever since.
All of which means it is probably not such a bad thing that the English football public is hardened to disappointment. Serial disappointments, indeed. Two more of these tournaments, on the back of this one, and the chances are it will be 30 years since “30 years of hurt” became part of the soundtrack.