I'm no sports fan, but I'm an Englishman by birth and upbringing, and so, when the World Cup comes around, I was brought up and ingrained with a sense of dread. This is England's game; and England's domestic league is arguably the best in the world. My family was a rugby household, and my dad never placed soccer on the same moral plane as the bloody butchery of muddy doggedness that is his sporting lodestar. But the World Cup is as much about national identity as it is about sport, and my dad knew whose country he supported. And so, every four years, the English people go through a period - longer or shorter - of emotional trauma and agony. I was two when England last won the World Cup. I remember one day in my youth when, unable to cope with the tension of another grueling match, I went for a walk in my home town. The streets were deserted. No cars; no people. The silence was deathly. And as I turned a corner in the street, I heard from inside all the houses within range, a collective, anguished groan go up simultaneously - as, once again, England choked.
I couldn't watch yesterday either. At least it was against Portugal, a wonderful little country, with old friendship with England. Losing to France and Germany is existentially far worse. But all the classic elements were there: the endless tension, the injury of the good player, the explosion of the hothead, the injustice of being clearly the better team but without the ability to score, the over-time, the penalty kicks, and then the inevitable emotional collapse; and the consumption of enormous amounts of warm beer to dull the pain. The hangovers in England today are probably epic even by that island's exacting standards.
The Observer captures a bit of it:
The supporters, so resolute and so fervent, deserved something special from England - and what they got, once Rooney was gone, was the kind of robust, dogged performance in which they take a kind of ironic pride: determination in adversity. It is not for nothing that the fans' chosen anthem is Elmer Bernstein's theme tune from the prisoner-of-war movie The Great Escape - a film that celebrates the nobility of courageous, if ultimately futile, resistance.
Played in high humidity beneath the closed roof of the magnificent Stadium AufSchalke, one of the most technologically sophisticated arenas in world sport, the game was, after a slow start, a splendid spectacle, fraught with tension and a slow-burning dread that the game would ultimately be decided on penalties. What else?
What England and their supporters feared most as the drama of the occasion intensified was the horror of repetition: the knowledge that, when it mattered most, England had failed before and perhaps were destined to fail again. 'Ever tried,' wrote Samuel Beckett. 'Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'
This was the story of Dunkirk: fail better. But one day, one day, England will win. I know they will. Just not this time. Never this time.
(Photo: Muran Sezer/AP).