(Editors' note: We asked Nick Hornby -- novelist and screenwriter who wrote about his obsessive fandom of Arsenal in "Fever Pitch" -- to reflect on what it's like to follow England during a World Cup. This is the second of three pieces he'll be writing for ESPN while England chases glory in Russia. His first, on the unbearable hope that comes from supporting England, can be read here.)
I'd like to begin by quoting from an email I wrote to a friend the night before the World Cup began about our predictor tournament:
"I know it sounds weird, but I've got a funny feeling about Group F. I've watched Mexico a few times, and they love to play on the break. If Germany's wing-backs get caught too far forward, they could be in trouble. That means the Germans will probably have to win twice, and though I think they'll scrape it against Sweden, South Korea are capable of causing a shock, especially if Neuer goes for a wander when they're chasing a goal late on. So I'm predicting Mexico and Sweden to go through, and Germany to finish bottom of the group."
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I'd like to begin that way -- and indeed, I see now that I have done -- but of course I didn't write that email, nor did it even cross my mind to do so. My predictor Excel has Germany to win the tournament, beating Brazil 2-1 in the final.
The quality of the football may have been indifferent -- I don't wish to sound unpatriotic, but any World Cup in which England fans are busy arguing about the best route through to the final is a World Cup in which just about anyone can dream. Somewhere there is probably an incurable football-mad optimist with a Mexican father and a Swedish mother, but I can't imagine he or she backed both of his countries to get out of that group.
This is a tournament in which just about anything can happen, at any moment, and it's all the better for it. Thirteen of the past 16 were surely predictable enough. Not the 2018 edition. Russia have been better than anyone could have known, Poland worse, and I don't need to tell you the other shock, although I will anyway: Germany finished bottom! Knocked out by Sweden, Mexico and South Korea!
But the games themselves have been dramatic, occasionally chaotic, frequently infuriating (we'll miss you, Pepe), and enlivened no end by the introduction of VAR. Who knew that a man watching a TV could make great TV? Sometimes one doesn't want the football to restart, such is the tension created by the delay.
Of course, VAR has resulted in more penalties awarded, invariably correctly, but the way football works, any team that concedes usually has to find a goal from somewhere, so VAR has resulted in more open games and more goals scored.
(As we speak, someone, somewhere, perhaps a Ph.D. student doing his doctorate on technology and sport, will be doggedly going through every single World Cup game ever played, trying to work out who would have won each tournament if video replays had been available to the referee. Argentina would be in trouble. England, I fear, would be one Jules Rimet worse off, too.)
We greatly enjoyed the introduction of the spray-foam in 2014, but this is a whole new level of unpredictable entertainment.
We have been here before. An enjoyable group stage is frequently followed by endless stupefaction, as caution takes over, goals dry up and games become 30 minutes longer. (In England, this will cause serious domestic disputes, as the reality show "Love Island," beloved by every teenager in the country and broadcast at the previously football-friendly time of 9 p.m., will be almost over by the time the last penalty has been hoofed into Row Z by a hapless full-back who clearly didn't want to take one anyway.)
But there is a decent chance that the chaos will continue, and yesterday's two superb knock-out openers have already prevented the second round from damping down the tournament. For the most part, defending is a dying art, and the masters, the Italians and the Chileans, aren't even at the finals, which tells its own story. And in any case, the referee could blow his whistle at literally any corner kick, call for VAR and find an infraction, usually a headlock, that would break the deadlock.
The mood in England was jubilant after Harry Kane's last-minute winner against Tunisia in the first group game, and the jubilation turned to ecstasy after the five first-half goals against Panama. This is forgivable, given England's troubles in the group stages against inferior teams. We remember waiting until the 83rd minute for a goal against Trinidad in 2006, the nil-nil draw against Algeria in 2010, a host of other dour and embarrassing performances against Ireland, Egypt and Paraguay.
Against Panama, England were quick and ruthless, two adjectives that have never been used to describe an England World Cup performance in the 21st century. The defeat against Belgium has been forgotten and forgiven. There is no doubt that coming second in the group gives England an easier quarterfinal, should the next round be successfully negotiated.
As far as I can tell, this team is popular. They are young, modest and they haven't failed a hundred times before. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were, of course, wonderful players, but we don't ever again have to wonder why they couldn't reproduce their club form for England, or argue about whether they can play together successfully. That in itself feels like a holiday.
Now, however, one has to remember England's troubles in the knock-out stages against superior teams. It is worth pointing out, as I am able to do every four years (the statistic never changes) that England have won five knock-out games in the entire history of the competition on foreign soil, most recently a 1-0 win over Ecuador in 2006. Defeat against Colombia, especially the Colombia team that destroyed Poland, is by no means unthinkable, and Falcao against Harry Maguire is a match-up that might have made us chuckle a year or so ago, before we all decided it was coming home. Oh, and the "easy" quarterfinal could well be against Switzerland, the sixth-best team in the world, according to FIFA rankings.
But these few days have been a glorious respite from the deep divisions that separate us. Nationalism has meant many different things in England since the vote to leave the European Union, and a lot of these meanings have made many people uncomfortable. But the beauty of sport is that it simplifies everything.
Until Tuesday evening, and hopefully even longer, we all want the same thing: a Harry Kane hat trick. Well, maybe a Jesse Lingard hat trick, if you don't have much time for Tottenham, although, of course, you might be a City fan, or a Yorkshireman. A late Jamie Vardy winner off the bench? Nobody hates Leicester, do they? Oh. Anyway. You get my drift. We are all united. Did you hear about Germany? Out! Home! Beaten by South Korea in the last group game!