It is the hope that hurts. At least until 6:45 on Friday evening, England are still in the World Cup, clinging on by the thinnest of mathematical threads, their fingernails thrust deep into the window ledge.
The fact that no team has ever before in the competition’s history qualified for the knock out having lost their first two group stage matches does not stop the pathetic seed of hope being planted in our collective mind. Until rejection is official, there is a chance, we tell ourselves. Knowing it is the most meaningless of platitudes.
But the depressing thing is, whether the Italians do us a favour or not, it should not have come to this. England were not a strong side, this was clear. They were adequate at best. They were also pitched into a group that was as tough as any apart from the one involving Holland, Chile, Spain and Australia. Though as it turned out, that was a cake walk for Chile and Holland. But really they should have done better than this. This is failure at its most abject.
Not that some will have been too disappointed by it. The Scottish bloke in the Jimmy wig flourishing a saltire in among the Uruguay fans in the Sao Paolo stadium looked as if he was enjoying himself. You wonder which way he is going to vote in September. If he was prepared to travel all the way to Brazil to cheer on a team once described by his own country’s manager as the "worst kind of animals", simply because they were playing England, then the Better Together campaign might be advised not to count on his support.
What is so dispiriting about all this is that England had looked all right in their defeat against Italy. They had been bright in possession, creative, thoughtful.
Against Uruguay they reverted to the old failed ways: lumpen, unimaginative, cowed.
If only English players could demonstrate a modicum of the spirit deployed by the Uruguay team it might help. The South Americans had looked wretched against Costa Rica. They had looked like a side at the end of its natural life span, a team there for the taking. Against England they improved everywhere. Their goalkeeper remembered how to catch, their defenders how to tackle and clear, their midfielders how to close down space. Plus, they had Luis Suarez back.
Steven Gerrard said before the game that he knew how to defend against Suarez. Well, he certainly knew his game, setting him up for his devastating second goal with the kind of deft through header he had deployed all season when the pair were together for Liverpool.
The only minor detail taking the shine off that assist is that Suarez was now playing for the opposition.
That finish for the second goal was the mark of real quality. England had absolutely nothing to match that. Indeed, once again having earned an equaliser at this World Cup, they utterly failed to seize the momentum.
Against Uruguay, Costa Rica too had fallen a goal behind. But once they had equalised they upped the pace and tore the South American defence to shreds. Once Wayne Rooney had put the ball in the net, England seemed confused as to what to do. Should they attack or should they hold? In the event they did neither.
In fact, can you remember the last time England staged a rousing comeback? When was their Camp Nou '99 or Istanbul '05? When have they done what so many of our club sides manage to do and stormed through from behind? Against Germany in 2001 is the last I can remember.
The sad truth is, this is what England have come to: nobody here in Brazil seems particularly shocked, surprised or alarmed that they will – barring the most tortuous of miracles – be on the first plane home. Unlike the demise of Spain, which was greeted with a mix of shock and delight, England’s end barely elicited any reaction in the bars and streets here.
— Jack Lang (@snap_kaka_pop) June 20, 2014
Argentina, Germany, Italy, Colombia, Holland, Chile and Brazil are all still in it. For the locals that looks a competition to relish. England’s absence, well it doesn’t change anything. After all, no-one expected them to do anything anyway.
The question of where we go from here will no doubt be at the heart of the post mortems. This does look like a World Cup marking a change in football philosophy. The next decade looks like being dominated by the harry-and-press, quick breakaway game as so brilliantly espoused by Atletico Madrid.
And looking on the bright side, it is a style of play that suits the philosophy of the game in this country, that suits the temperament of our players. It is one we should embrace.
Whether Roy Hodgson is the man to implement that sort of game is a debate that can wait. At least until we know for certain we are out.
- Sports & Recreation