What if? England, the World Cup and the danger of spiritual escapism


Whisper it softly, but England might be about to actually win the World Cup. The fact is – like actors mentioning Macbeth – it’s almost heresy to say so. We are so desperate to prepare ourselves for possible disappointment that we dare not say it – but at the same time we know it’s within reach.

I don’t know about other football fans but I have had moments where I have foolishly allowed my imagination to drift to the unthinkable even before the bizarrely straightforward win against Sweden on Saturday. In my imagination England are playing France and they take a first half lead through a Harry Kane strike. The inevitable nerves are eased by a Lingard second and despite huge French pressure the late Griezmann goal is a mere consolation. A late Pogba miss eats up more precious time before the final whistle sounds and it has finally happened.

Then what? Well there’d be pandemonium, grown men singing and hugging, impromptu ‘It’s coming home’ congas and a general air of joyous disbelief.

ReutersEngland fans celebrate a 2-0 victory against Sweden.

I’m breaking all the unwritten rules because we’re not supposed to allow ourselves to dream in case it’s snatched away. If it does happen it’s a spontaneous explosion of relief like in Fever Pitch with all the years of hurt exorcised.

Dreaming of winning is the whole point of supporting a team – the unspoken hope that someday it will all come together. Having waited 18 years for England to regain the Ashes in 2005, there are two sporting dreams I really crave – West Ham winning the FA Cup and England winning the World Cup. Right now this is the closest I’ve got since the sickeners of West Ham’s last minute heartbreak against Liverpool in 2006 and England’s loss to Germany in 1990.

Incredibly, one of my big dreams could happen this week. But what would follow the parties?

The high wouldn’t last forever. Sooner or later England would lose a big game and we’d decide they were rubbish again. In a bid to outfox our opponents Gareth Southgate would decide to replace Harry Kane with Peter Crouch and get sacked. Landfill would groan under the weight of England car flags and Oxfam would be full of discarded waistcoats.

Maybe not. Maybe England would embark upon a period of global football domination, with West Ham also winning the Champions League seven years in a row. But even if we do win, life will have to return to normal at some point.

Worse than suggesting we might win is the even worse heresy of suggesting there might be an anti-climax afterwards. Don’t get me wrong – I’m desperate for England to win. I’ll be hyperventilating in my replica 1982 England top with the rest of you but I’m not sure it’s the best thing for my hopes to rest on.

We easily spend life pinning our hopes on things working out, on circumstances we struggle to control. We can end up thinking that getting a particular job or a dream house or reaching a stage in life like retirement will be the thing that satisfies and fulfils us. I sometimes see people living for the weekend or hanging on for the next holiday and thinking that will make them happy. There’s always the danger of disappointment that when we get there it’s not as good as we hoped – and of course it doesn’t last.

The point for me is that a happy and fulfilled life has to come from finding pleasure and peace in the everyday. Most of life is pretty mundane. I think the point is to find fulfilment in that rather than trying to find ways to temporarily escape it.

In the book of John, Jesus talks about offering people life to the full. This is life with an extra dimension. It’s life where in the tedium and struggle of everyday life we have the presence of our maker – his help, his guidance, his spirit forming and shaping our character so we learn how to make the most of life and react well when the storms come our way.

Football has the rare ability to get blokes to talk, sing and even make physical contact with each other. The whole thing is a wonderful but exhausting escape from normality. In contrast, when I worship God on a Sunday, using – as we sang yesterday – the very breath he has given us, I am praising the one who I don’t just hope will come through for me but can trust to do so


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