Over the past few weeks I have detected a cultural shift in British social life. At any gathering it is now safe to be as offensive as you wish about Tony Blair in the knowledge that no one – right or left – will be upset. (Note: this advice may not apply to dinners at 10, Downing Street).
But as taboos break down, new ones arise to take their place. Sexual frankness came in just as it became unacceptable to make racial comments. Right now, you can be rude about the prime minister. But you have to tread very warily indeed concerning the England football team.
Even among trusted intimates (who knows who might denounce you to the authorities?), it can be dangerous to state what one feels to be the truth: that the mood of national expectation is ridiculous, as is England’s position as third-favourites in the betting; that the circus surrounding the team is preposterous; that the entire overblown set-up of English football is designed to make the national team’s success improbable; and that the manager’s approach to the tournament has been culpably inept.
There, I’ve said it – aware that in 17 days time I may be in Trafalgar Square, smiling thinly amid the cheers for Sir David, Sir Wayne and Lord Sven.
England only need to win three more football matches to make it happen. All one can say is that, at the real World Cup – the one far removed from the video game and shopping festival taking place around the England camp in Baden-Baden – it is impossible to find a serious observer who gives the idea any credence.
It has been widely noted in England that Sven-Göran Eriksson’s selection policy has been bizarre. Knowing that Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen had fitness problems, he still selected Theo Walcott, 17, as his back-up striker without ever watching him. Then, having been bold, he lost his nerve, refusing even to give him a run on the field after Owen limped out of the tournament against Sweden. (The senior players are thought to have combined to freeze Walcott out.)
There is always a case for boldness in selection and a case for conservatism. And normally victory validates the chosen course. But if England beat Argentina 5-0 in the final, nothing can justify this vacillating incompetence.
It has been noted too that Eriksson (salary: £4m plus) even now does not seem to know what formation he wants, that he cannot get his midfield to combine, that David Beckham’s role has become marginal. There are leaks about the uselessness of the manager’s half-time talks. And the tabloids are full of the boutique-madness of the WAGs (the wives and girlfriends) who have given Baden-Baden a bonanza it hasn’t seen since the days when Edward VII hit the roulette tables.
Older readers may recall Vivienne Nicholson, the football pools winner who said she would “spend, spend, spend” and duly did so, with unhappy results. She counted as a cautionary tale in the 1960s; these days she would be a heroine. But somehow no one at home seems to have put it all together and drawn the right conclusions. Should England win the World Cup, it would glorify everything that is atrocious about football.
It would be a triumph for bad management and administration. It would send yet more cash into a game already polluted and corrupted by it. It would reward a team that has thus far played rotten football rather than those – Spain, Argentina, Brazil (fitfully), Holland and Germany – who have set the World Cup alight. Lord knows what it might do to the quality of English life (or indeed the popularity of the prime minister).
I am looking at properties in Scotland and the more nationalistic reaches of Wales. I shall be travelling directly from Trafalgar Square. I’ll be the one in the tin hat and flak jacket.