Thanks to a rather clumsy and inarticulate stanza in Jack Wilshere’s press conference, the construction of nationality and national identity has been at the forefront of the build-up to England’s two decisive World Cup qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland at Wembley.
In a tangential sense, it is rather fitting. Because few things colour the English national identity more vividly than the trials and tribulations of its football team; few events provide a greater intensity of focus, a greater sense of communal experience, than the World Cup finals.
There is something special about football that, more than all other sports, makes it central to concepts of nation. As historian Eric Hobsbawn wrote after observing Austria in the 1930s: “The imagined community of millions, seems more real as a team of 11 named people.”
Every four years, tens of millions of individuals coalesce around one single cultural event. St George’s crosses are dangled from windows, stuck onto car bumpers, painted on faces and worn across chests. For some this overt display of patriotism makes the heart swell with pride; for others it makes the bile rise in their throat. Either way you cannot ignore it. A World Cup is always a huge, important collective experience.
Which goes some way to underlining just how important England’s next two fixtures are. Hodgson’s men aren’t just playing for the two wins they need to guarantee their qualification – and the career highlight of playing a World Cup in Brazil. They are playing to lift the collective mood of a country and, given how much extra business pubs and bars report during major tournaments, probably its flagging economy too.
England expects a World Cup every four years. The last time it went without was in 1994, for which Graham Taylor lost his job. Failures to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 tournaments also did for Sir Alf Ramsey, who described his sacking as “the most devastating half-hour of my life”, and Don Revie, who decided to tell the Daily Mirror instead of the FA that he was taking over United Arab Emirates and ended up leaving the country in disgrace.
Hodgson, whose team have rarely sparkled in qualifying, knows just one slip-up could see him join the hall of shame - no coach has failed to take England to a World Cup and survived. In a group where the top four teams are separated by just three points – the tightest scenario in any World Cup qualifying group in any continent - the margin for error is slim. Six points takes England through; four may only mean a play-off place; and three could spell the end of their participation in this World Cup.
If you accept the premise that - given he was brought in to replace Fabio Capello just over a month before the tournament started - Euro 2012 was essentially a free swing for Hodgson, these games see him under the most pressure he has shouldered as England manager – and, by extension, in his career in football.
Still, he attempted to project an image of calm in his press conference on Thursday: "Am I worried about failing to qualify? No. We have never discussed not qualifying. We are convinced we are a good team, that we are good enough to qualify and that we are going to do the job. Words like fear or anxiety or concern haven't really crossed our minds or certainly haven't crossed our lips. There will be lots of good teams that don't get there but I am convinced that it won't be us."
While Hodgson insists he and his players are happy in their own skin, these qualifiers find English football as a whole in something of an identity crisis.
Should, as suggested by Wilshere, English football turn more isolationist? Should it shun the opportunity to recruit talented players of foreign origin and comfort itself by retaining its familiar style – defined by the Arsenal midfielder thus: "We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that.”
Hodgson’s England – robust and unspectacular – have done little to counter these stereotypes during a qualifying campaign that has seen them fail to beat any of Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland so far. If the manager picks James Milner on the right of midfield on Friday night instead of finding a way to accommodate Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge in a three-pronged attack, it will be a typically conservative move. England rarely win any points for artistic impression.
But now is not the time to attempt a clean break with tradition. While Gregg Dyke and his commission have a remit to define and shape England's future, and carve out a new identity for a country striving for cultural change at all levels of the game, Hodgson can only contend with an uncertain and looming present. That is the only real focus for his players too - not matters of nationality that they are ill-equipped to grapple with.
In his own press conference on Thursday, captain Steven Gerrard picked up on Wilshere’s theme of rather clumsy rhetoric when backing plans by Dyke to increase the ratio of British players in the Premier League. Gerrard told the press: "I think I read something about he's trying to halve the number of foreigners allowed in the country and I think that's a good start."
Still, while England’s footballers preach a form of sporting protectionism, the people who invest hope in them are decidedly diverse. And anyone who feels an emotional tie to this team - whether indigenous, economic migrant or refugee - will have their nerves sternly tested in these next two matches. The mood of a nation and its people - however you define them - hinge on the visits of Montenegro and Poland.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport