Matthew Monk


 
Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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England expects



    It is Jubilee weekend here in the UK. That means that Elizabeth Windsor has been our unelected head of state for 50 years. Something to celebrate? I don't think so. When I use my passport, the first page states that Her Britannic Majesty's Government demands and requests that I am allowed to remove around without let or hindrance, because I am one of her loyal subjects. In other words: 'Foreigners, this passport belongs to a subject of Her Majesty, The Queen. Do as your told!' Does it make me feel proud, am I going to be celebrating 50 years of luxurious living and tax avoidance? I don't think so somehow.

    But there are flags all over the place where I live - on flagpoles in front of the civic centre, hanging out of bedroom windows, attached to taxi cabs, painted on pub walls. The British media would like us to believe that this is for the Jubilee, but something else less organised and orchestrated is going on. The news is full of pictures from 1977, the last time we had a Jubilee. Then Union Jack bedecked street parties could be found up and down the country. Old women made red, white and blue cakes. Old military men put on their finest tweed blazers and made stirring speeches about Churchill and Her Majesty. And the country seemed to go along with it, happily. It was a burst of colour in dreary lives, a time for excitement and an opportunity to get blind drunk in the street in front of your house. And it is remembered very fondly.

    The government wanted to repeat it this year. They declared this Monday to be an 'Official United Kingdom Party Day' as if we have these all the time. But this time no one seemed to take much notice. More street parties are planned in Nepal than in Dundee, and a city the size of Manchester can boast no more than a handful of events. Yet the flags are everywhere. What is going on?

    The Jubilee has been hijacked, as it was in 1977. Then Punk took over and split the nation, creating anti-heroes like The Clash and the Sex Pistols; today it is football.

    Maybe this is not the case in sleepy villages and towns in conservative Southern England, but in urban Britain for every Union Flag (the symbol of the monarchy after all) you see ten or fifteen St George's Crosses - the symbol of English football. Ever since Euro 96 - when football did come home into the hearts of the English - this flag has taken on a new meaning. Once a symbol of the far right, the red and white St George Cross is today a badge of allegiance to the cause of Sven, Michael and Becks. And the huge amount of these flags on display shows just how much expectation and goodwill rides through Japan with England.

    The expectation is real. Ever since that victory over Germany last September it has not been unusual to see England mentioned as possible World Champions. And as we reach the opening fixture against Sweden, almost everyone thinks we are going to win, deep down. It is not a British thing to be boastful, and we much prefer to see ourselves as plucky underdogs, so the press is full of predictions of Italian or Argentinian winners. But if you talk to an ordinary fan they fully expect to be able to beat anyone put in front of those Three Lions.

    It is also very fashionable to support England. It is not patriotic fervour, like we saw in 1977 when the idea behind the Jubilee was to remind the world how important Britain still was. Today the England captain and his wife are style icons, and adorn more celebrity magazines than football ones. In 1977 the face of England captain Emlyn Hughes would be the last one picked to sell sunglasses or Pepsi. Today you cannot move without banging into something celebrating English football.

    On BBC television tonight there is a choice of primetime viewing: hour upon hour of Jubilee music concerts or a four-hour history of English international football since 1966 (to go along with the six-hour history of the World Cup since 1966 shown last week). Both will be watched in equally high numbers. And then comes the main event - England against Sven's home nation, Sweden.

    England are at full strength all of a sudden. Beckham is back, as is Keiron Dyer. Sven suddenly has selection problems; does he stick with Owen Hargreaves or bring back Nicky Butt? What about Emile Heskey? Who plays at full back? All nice quandaries to have you have to think.

    In the English press the only Swede (apart from Sven) getting any attention is Freddie Ljungberg, and his will-he-won't-he-start saga. Ljungberg had an amazing run in the final six weeks of the English season scoring goals and making chances for Arsenal. But no one is talking about Henrik Larsson, and against the pedestrian English defence he might be hoping to get a high number of chances. And England have not managed to beat Sweden for 34 years.

    So are England going to win? Probably. Ljungberg and Larsson have played well in successful club teams, surrounded by good players, who are almost always better than their opposition. The Swedish players who are based in England - except Ljungberg - play for Coventry, Southampton, Everton and Aston Villa. It is hardly the Champions League is it? On top of this England are a young, hungry team that is more relaxed than at any time before. The players are far more experienced for their age than at previous tournaments and are fitter and more skilful than ever. Also they can boast the current European Footballer of the Year amongst their ranks for the first time at a World Cup. When you look at things impartially it does point to an English victory.

    Jimmy Armfield is a name not that famous these days. He had a long and distinguished career for England, both as full back and Captain and is regarded as being amongst the best ever in both roles. Later he coached Leeds to the European Cup Final and became a respected radio analyst. He made another of his insightful comments this week, pointing out that if the people of England did not believe, did not expect, then who would?

    And that is the point exactly. Because the country expects so much, indeed because the country wants to be able to expect so much, it is filtering through to the squad. We want to win; finally after all these false dawns and failures we look to have the chance to do that. The country is expectant.

    It will either be an exciting, happy nation over this long holiday weekend, or a wet, miserable one. England really does expect, not just that every man will do his duty - in the words of the message sent by Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar centuries ago - but that we have something to look forward to.

    In preparation, the BBC has lined up the most English of all movies for the night before we meet Argentina in Sapporo - The Italian Job is on again. Unless you live in Britain you are unlikely to have seen it or even heard of it. It is the story of Michael Caine and his gang of flash Cockney wideboys, who travel to Turin under the cover of an England/Italy World Cup qualifier to steal 4 million from Fiat. Of course the caper eventually fails - famously with a coach full of gold bullion teetering over the edge of an Alpine mountain - but with its (dated) high fashion, football references, sing-a-long songs and red, white and blue Minis tearing up the streets of Italy, it is as close to a fantasy image of Englishness as can be found.

    But of course no one will feel like watching it if England have lost to Sweden and are looking at elimination at the hands of Argentina. That would be too daunting to think about. We have been ordered to celebrate this weekend, and an England win is about the best way to ensure that. It is also the best thing a republican could be given this weekend. Because I would much rather see Beckham's face all over the media than the Queen's. Now is that too much to ask?


 

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