Football, football, blah blah, something something offside blah.
Never let it be said this column does not deal with the big arguments of the day.
But rather than join the circle of grim-faced self-pleasure being played out on the national stage by the commentariat, politicians, and shirtless men for whom the wearing of shirts should be mandated by law, let us start instead a whole new argument: what is the point of all this, exactly?
If England wins the Euros on Sunday, there will be a burst of entirely-reasonable national pride, and a boost for our country’s narrow band of racist scumbags.
Someone will say it justifies Brexit, someone else will point out that without immigration the squad would have only 3 people in it, and the culture wars will be reignited because what better way to start the week than a bonfire of inanities.
And if England loses, there will be a swell of national pride for a group of nice young lads who did their best, and it’s the taking part that counts, and other things your Gran told you, as well as an extra jolt of hate to fuel racism and scummery.
Someone will say it was punishment for Brexit, someone else will say it was the sons of migrants who let us down, and we’ll have a cultural conflagration that burns exactly the same as if we’d won.
We are making an almighty fuss about a sporting event the outcome of which will make absolutely no difference to anything.
If it’s victory, 2021 will become the year since which another victory hasn’t happened, and if it’s a loss it’ll be another bleak line on the wall of our self-imposed incarceration in a football-themed asylum.
Win or lose, our union of nations is threatened. A pandemic still rages. We’re still governed by buffoons who think they should be paid like footballers, but show no talent worth reward.
The match hasn’t even happened yet, and already Jacob Rees-Mogg is rapping. Dear God, England, what do you think the dusty broomhandle will do to appear relevant if we win?
Pull his shirt over his face, skid pelvis-first towards the Despatch Box, or down a yard of ale in the Speaker’s Chair?
The Prime Minister is dressing like Joey from The One When He Wears All Of Chandler’s Clothes, and the Leader of the Opposition is demanding a bank holiday, in a country with 5m self-employed people, 10m children who’ve not had enough school, with pubs unable to find staff, and an NHS that needs all the help it can get.
Could they BE any more idiotic?
There is lots to be proud of in the England squad, which in a break from tradition does not include anyone like John Terry. They’re a fine bunch of lads, multi-cultural, thoughtful, respectful, and many of them raised by single mums.
They put to the lie that old Tory trope from the 1980s, that lone parents destroy society. They’ve done more to feed children and keep the nation’s hopes up in the past year than any MP.
They’ll still be nice lads if we lose; but we’ll treat them like failures. And if we win, our politicians will claim credit for the squad’s grace, teamwork, and skill, while utterly failing to adopt any of it themselves.
The players might be good role models, but unless important people start copying them, they’re not going to change anything.
It is rather wonderful that any of us are worshipping a man from Crawley whose greatest miss was an open goal 25 years ago, and whose greatest win was to don a piece of clothing popularised by Charles II and persuade all the estate agents to copy him. And that we like him most, not because of his abilities, but because he has yet to be likened to a turnip.
He might look like a cross between Dex Dexter and wet-lipped Richard from the Guess Who? board, but Gareth Southgate is the mildest of heroes: he would shun both Alexis Carrington, and that beret-wearing vamp Maria, for a nice cup of tea and a HobNob.
If we win, Clark Kent there becomes Superman, without having to change his pants. If we lose, it’s that penalty from 1996 again, it’s questions about his abilities, it’s an actual serious discussion on the news channels about whether it’s because he took the waistcoat off.
Madness. Total, complete, and utter madness.
Other nations can be just as obsessed about football as us, but they don’t let their entire self-worth hinge upon it. They don’t pick over every win or loss like an anal-retentive with a sweetcorn phobia. They don’t wang on about the deeper meanings of an opportunistic song that is the only reason anyone remembers the Lightning Seeds.
Win or lose, England’s least-attractive men will take their shirts off. Things will get smashed or broken, double-decker buses will be treated as trampolines, and half the crowd will pull a sickie while thinking their boss won’t notice. The country will be no greater, and no more unified – there are more people not watching the game than those that are. England handles sporting victory and failure exactly the same way: badly.
But if you’re honest, you know that winning is not the point, and losing doesn’t matter.
Because if England couldn’t kick off, find things to admire and stuff to despise in its football team, then it would have to look at itself for all that.
Its people would realise the man in charge makes a difference to morale, that how he dresses shows how he thinks, and if Gareth Southgate couldn’t comb his hair or pull his trousers up we’d never have got past the group stage.
If a winger was breaking social-distancing rules, the defenders had let the Delta variant into the box, and the centre-forward thought infecting the whole team with a novel disease would help win, we’d storm the pitch.
We’d never vote to leave the European League, either. Not now, and not on Monday, not even if we go down 12-nil.
Because football’s important, and actually being a better country isn’t. Getting a better team, a better manager, makes a difference in tournaments, but we don’t see it could do the same at the G7. We demand our footballers do better, and let our leaders get away with murder.
So it is bemusing that footballers are told not to comment on politics because it’s out of their league, while politicians never stop dribbling on about football. They know that when the nation’s thinking about the game, no-one’s noticing what’s happening off the pitch.
Which is why England fails at football. It doesn’t do it properly, apply its rules, learn its lessons, or acknowledge its failures. If only the English could show as much promise, skill, and self-awareness as their football team, there might be an actual point to winning a match.