It's Coming Home, or Why I Love The Men's Football World Cup

Every fourth year is a red-letter year. I have been anticipating this summer since little Mario Goetze chipped home the winner in extra time four long (oh my goodness, how long) years ago. I love the Men's Football World Cup, always have and probably always will.

This summer, as you might have noticed, things have been even more intense than usual, and I'm not sure I can remember a time when I wasn't sweating and absent-mindedly humming "it's coming home...". This is an exciting time to be a World Cup fan, and an even more exciting time to be a fan of the England football team at the World Cup. This ultra-high profile tournament has led to me having several conversations with non-football-loving friends along the lines of "but why do you like it though?" That is a really good question and one I want to answer before this World Cup is over, as it inevitably has to be one day (Sunday).

I like football!

Basically, I like football. It can be exciting, frustrating, terrifying, boring, annoying, but I like it. Part of this must be growing up with a football-mad father and brother, who I love very much, but separate to that, it's a wonderfully simple game. All you need is a football and jumpers for goalposts and you're set. Things can change in a moment, and there are so many opportunities for personal stories and glories. When a highly skilled player gets the ball and runs down the pitch to goal it's magical. When Cristiano Ronaldo curves a free kick in, defying the laws of physics, it's unbelievable. When Manuel Neuer, the German goalkeeper, ran up to the other penalty area to try to score a last-ditch goal to keep their dream alive, and South Korea took advantage and scored a second goal against the defending champions, it was wonderful. When it's the World Cup, I don't really care which countries are playing - football is great.

The personal stories!

When the squad was announced there were perhaps some doubts about the inclusion of Leicester defender Harry Maguire, but now that his head has helped to propel us to the semi finals (!!) of the World Cup, his name will go down in footballing history. Then you've got the incredible story of Iran's goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand who ran away from his disapproving family and worked many jobs, even sleeping rough, before making it to the biggest stage in world football. Then there are simply the hundreds of people from all over the world you get to see literally living out their childhood dreams on prime time television every night for weeks. Beautiful.

Collective memory-making!

Speaking of personal stories, no story this summer is quite as beautiful as that of Gareth Southgate. I have very distinct memories of being six years old, watching the semi-final game of Euro '96 on television, believing, as we all did, that football was Coming Home. I remember watching in disbelief as 27-year-old Gareth stepped up, and had his penalty saved. Overwhelmingly, I felt so sad for that poor man, who tried his best and ultimately had to take on the responsibility of being The One Who Didn't Score. Ever since that day, any mention of him has come with a little bit of "ohhh poor Gareth, poor us." But no more! By plugging away with quiet expertise, confidence and compassion, he has become the England manager and last week led the England football team to their first ever World Cup win via penalty shootout, thereby exorcising those memories forever and proving that your past does not define your future, and should never limit the trajectory of your ambitions.

That's one specific story, but ask any passing English football fan over the age of about 30 and they will almost all have the same memory of that day in 1996. We all share in these moments every four (well two, including the Euros) years that will be talked about (if you're interested) for the rest of our lives. I've been talking to people I met in my late 20s about how our school timetables were shifted to accommodate early morning games from Japan/South Korea in 2002. This summer being such a special one makes that even more exciting. I'm looking forward to reminiscing about this actual week I'm living in right now for years to come. Amazing.

Public joy is fun!

Obviously any kind of 'national pride' situation comes with inherently problematic elements, particularly at this moment in time. Football in the UK (and around the world) has specifically also had its issues with violence, racism, homophobia and misogyny, none of which have been eradicated by any stretch of the imagination. However, when it comes to the World Cup, I don't think pride in the England football team should always be conflated with nationalistic fervour (as in, by observers). Of course, it's an unfortunate co-incidence that England doing well makes nationalists happy, but it's making far more people who aren't nationalists happy too, and that's something to celebrate!

This is the most diverse English World Cup squad ever, and as Gareth Southgate said last week, it is becoming more and more representative of the world we live in. "We are a team that represents modern England and in England we’ve spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is … Of course, first and foremost I will be judged on football results. But we have a chance to affect other things that are even bigger.” David Olusoga, historian and broadcaster, wrote this brilliant article on this England team's relevance to English national identity, which I'd highly recommend.

It was announced today that Hyde Park is being opened up to 30,000 ballot-winners to watch the semi-final in the biggest football screening since we hosted Euro '96. I've entered, and so have millions of others. Each time England have played so far, the atmosphere has been electric all over the city. Cheers and songs and the sounds of community have been drifting around for weeks and it's something really special.

Anything can happen!

As an England fan, this tends not to go in our favour, and "everyone seems to know the score", but it's still true - as this summer has shown - that anything can happen. No two World Cups are the same, and the human drama that plays out over the weeks of competition is truly on a par with anything you find in a theatre (and a cursory glance at the rest of my blog shows I do not say that lightly). I watched Ghana, the last African team left in the competition, playing Uruguay in the World Cup 2010, in South Africa (they were playing in South Africa, I was watching in a great Northamptonshire Indian restaurant), carrying with them the hopes of an entire first-time host continent. The twists and turns and utter injustice of that game have stuck with me vividly for 8 years and show no signs of going away.

This competition has seen the early exits of almost every major footballing nation, some with a whimper, some with a shock, unexpected defeat. Nobody really expected England to do this well, and as I type this in the early hours of Tuesday 10th July 2018, anything can still happen.

I am so excited to find out what it will be...

(jk, #itscominghome)