Oliver Cross: World Cup fever? This year it’s all about indifference

England fans for once have realistic expectations for the team in the World Cup.

England fans for once have realistic expectations for the team in the World Cup.

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THIS WEEK I had my first sighting of an England flag being flown from a car to mark the start of the World Cup on Thursday.

It looked very lonely. I don’t think many English people expect great things of the national side in this tournament, particularly under a manager whose facial expression has settled into one of perpetual disappointment.

Apart from that one car, World Cup flags seem mostly confined to pubs, where they don’t represent a spontaneous outbreak of patriotism but rather an attempt to sell beer.

Similarly, I don’t see many people who have thought it necessary to fill in a World Cup wall chart – actually, it never is necessary to fill in a World Cup wall chart, but sometimes, when expectations about England’s performance are running feverishly high, it’s a good displacement activity.

The World Cup doesn’t usually attract this level of indifference – indeed I remember when England won it in 1966. It was an extraordinary day; people spoke to total strangers and smiled at each other, something they hadn’t done since VE-day in 1945 and, though they didn’t know it at the time, wouldn’t have occasion to do again.

There followed a 48-year reality check, during which the English slowly adjusted to the fact that, although they invented the game, they were far from all-conquering at it. At some point during the process, a friend, embittered by an England defeat against Romania, remarked how the world had been arranged totally unfairly. We help their orphans and in return, they humiliate our back four.

Actually, I don’t think English people are such slow learners as the English red-top press, who tried to bully their readers into a state of chauvinistic fervour long after most sensible football fans had realised that, actually, reaching the quarter-finals wouldn’t be a bad result.

I remember being in front of a giant screen at Headingley stadium during the last World Cup in 2010 and watching England being hammered 4-1 by Germany. The press prescribed an immediate period of mourning and gnashing of teeth, but the fans at Headingley, even those wrapped in England shirts, just shrugged.

It was disappointing, yes, but the Germans played better than us and, as is not always the case in football, nobody got killed or injured.

The great Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly’s view that football isn’t a matter of life and death because ‘it’s far more important than that’ is actually (though I’m not sure how much he meant it) thoroughly insane. This World Cup, for England, is a question of dampened expectations, enjoying the sport and hoping, ever so quietly, that we can surprise everyone by winning the darned thing.

We won’t be hectored into a mood of patriotic fervour because, unlike 1966, patriotic fervour and football don’t really go together any more. We live in an era of global capitalism, where your local team, if it’s in the Premiership, is likely to be no more local than Goldman Sachs and is hardly a team anyway – more a brand or a tax arrangement.

And we need to relax, when the Brazil games start, about the idea that soccer is entirely about winning. If that were the case, what are Accrington Stanley, or, indeed, Leeds United, for?

Incidentally, I sometimes get mysterious intimations, as if from another world, about sporting events, and my spirit guide tells me we should prepare for a surprising showing from Belgium in the World Cup.

But don’t take your savings down to William Hill yet because I know hardly anything about football and my spirit guide has so far proved to be completely wrong about absolutely everything.

LAST WEEK I went to see Alan Bennett’s play Enjoy, which flopped when it was presented in the West End in 1980, possibly because London was not yet ready for a story set in a soon-to-be-demolished back-to-back house in Armley, Leeds.

This revived production, at West Yorkshire Playhouse, should by now have become a period piece, particularly as Bennett (I’m sure despite his best efforts), has been abducted by witless journalists and is now on permanent display as a national treasure.

Which, in Bennett’s story, is what more-or-less happens to the demolished back-to-back in Armley. It’s taken down brick-by-brick and rebuilt in a heritage theme park, with the mother of the house installed as a mark of authenticity (the ailing father has meanwhile been carted off to Leeds General Infirmary – this is a play with a strong sense of place).

As well as being – way ahead of its time - about the heritage industry and the now-familiar practice of recording everybody’s every move, Enjoy is also concerned with prostitution, cross-dressing, dementia, homophobia and, reflecting Bennett’s talent for bathos, vinyl flooring. There are many good jokes and moments of high farce, but I don’t think the play is to be confused with Run For Your Wife. I came out thinking about lots of things which I couldn’t quite disentangle and therefore I walked, among friends, down the Playhouse steps speaking not a word and thinking , well, that I had just seen a play which bears thinking about. Oh, and the sets and acting were brilliant. It ends tomorrow.

IF I COULD have a special power, it would be the ability to mimic amusing voices, particularly William Hague’s, but as it is, I have to satisfy myself with enjoying the way other people do it.

West Yorkshire Playhouse’s current Alan Bennett season overlaps with another play of Yorkshire interest, Beryl, about the great Morley cyclist Beryl Burton, set in a time when sports stars were both more ordinary and more interesting.

It’s been adapted by the striking Lancashire actress Maxine Peake (of Shameless and much else) from her 2012 radio play, in which she took the title role and managed to change her natural Bolton accent into a West Yorkshire one – which impressed me because I imagine that it requires a great deal of skill and an appreciation of subtleties to turn from one northern English accent to another; Cornish or Highland Scots might be easier.

But even Coronation Street doesn’t appear to train its actors in Manchester-speak; presumably it believes that so long as they sound some-sort-of northern, the rest of the country won’t notice.

Leeds United 1992 League Champions.  Leeds United v Sheffield United, title winning match, 26th April 1992.  Players celebrate. From left: Jon Newsome, Gary Speed, Gary McAllister and Eric Cantona with John Lukic behind.

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