Like many people, I imagine, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing each time England have been knocked out of the World Cup. In 2010 I was in Australia and had to get up in the middle of the night to watch England get thumped by Germany, which was a sterile and deadening experience. In 2006 I also happened to be in Australia, though that was my first time and I had only been in the country 24 hours, so seeing England lose on penalties to Portugal was more spacey and surreal. In 2002 I was in a meeting to grade student exams, which was interrupted briefly to tell us what we already knew, that England had lost to Brazil. In 1998 I saw England lose on penalties to Argentina in the front room of a house in Cambridge. In 1990 I saw England lose on penalties to Germany in the front room of a different house in Cambridge.
In 1986 I was at Glastonbury, where there were only a couple of small screens and far too many people to get a view of England’s match with Argentina; at one point a moan went through the crowd, which I discovered afterwards wasn’t for either of Maradona’s goals, but a cry of despair when Lineker narrowly failed to reach a cross from John Barnes at the death. In 1982 I was at boarding school and a teacher told us that England had failed to get the required result against Spain, which caused me inadvertently to swear in front of his wife. That’s it. In 1970 I was only three. In 1966 I hadn’t been born. It adds up to a conventional, privileged life, during which England are never going to win the World Cup.
The one I minded most, by far, was 1998. Michael Owen’s wonder-goal, which took England into a 2-1 lead against Argentina, was the only time I let myself believe that the pattern was going to be broken. It lasted about half an hour, until David Beckham got sent off. In the next round Argentina were beaten by Holland, who were in turn beaten by Brazil, who lost in the final to France. So that brief glimpse of what it might be like to have a world-beating team was a long way from the real deal. In 1990 the excitement lasted longer, and had England got past the Germans there is a good chance they would have beaten Argentina in the final, but it never felt as if the trophy was quite within reach. England were always playing catch-up with fate.
This time is different. Going out in the group stages after just two matches, without once having held the lead in either of them, is as far from winning the World Cup as you can get. There were some tantalising moments – Rooney’s header against the bar from less than a yard out against Uruguay looked both unmissable and unreachable at the same time – and England put together some nice passages of play, but the positive vibes were so short-lived that they barely register even a couple of days later. Normally England’s World Cup failures make their fans feel the passage of time: every four years is infrequent enough for a life to pass by before you know it. This tournament reinforces how quickly time passes for the players as well. One hundred and eighty minutes of football and it’s done until 2018. Some of them will get another chance, if injury spares them – Sterling, Lallana, Barkley will be back for more. Most players get more than one shot at it. But not many get more than two. Sturridge may have been at his peak for this tournament. Rooney won’t get another chance.
2022 is still scheduled to happen in Qatar, which will hardly suit England. Even Russia is likely to be an inhospitable environment next time round. There’s a possibility England might host the World Cup again during my lifetime, so perhaps there is still a faint possibility I might see them win it. But for the players, this was it. In a world where time is speeding up in so many different ways, four-year cycles represent a brutal reality check. Maybe only electoral politics is comparable: one defeat and it can be a five-year wait till you get a shot at redemption. But the lifespan of politicians is long and they know that if they can hang on, the pendulum will eventually swing their way again. Football is not like that. They think it’s all over. They’re right.