Football is experienced as doubt. Football is watched feeling sick. It is wishing matches finished, wanting to walk out of a stadium even as you’ve been desperate to be there, being convinced that the most heartbreaking possible scenario is the most likely thing to pass.
And usually it does. Football is about losing. Only one team can win a league. Thirty-two teams went to the World Cup; 31 will go home wondering what if.
The idea England might be the exception both to that rule and to a torturous history of defeat, pain and regrets still feels extraordinary. It also feels dangerous, because while football is also about being powerless to prevent something awful happening to something that matters to you so much, it is equally about being convinced that even a thought or stray sentence could instantly summon disaster.
Any neutral watching England 2-0 up against Sweden could tell they were not going to lose. Many England fans were convinced that remarking “we’re the better team here” to the person next to them would be to guarantee an immediate Swedish goal.
World Cup 2018: Sweden 0-2 England highlights
It is why being 1-0 down can often be more relaxing than being 1-0 up. What’s the worst that can happen now the worst thing is already happening?
And so you lie to yourself. We’re just going to enjoy the occasion. It’s only sport. I didn’t expect us to win anyway.
You tuck yourself behind established beliefs. England are an embarrassment at big tournaments. England don’t win penalty shootouts. English footballers are spoiled, selfish and out of touch with those who help fund their crazy wages.
Hope is a delusion. Dreaming is for night-time. Football is disappointment.
You know all this is true. You also know what football can do for you. It makes you leap around and grab your friends around the neck and roar at each other’s faces from inches away. It makes you jump on the back of strangers. It makes you feel the same way at exactly the same time as millions of people you will never meet.
You stay with football because of the possibility of all this. You keep daydreaming because of the little part of you that doesn’t consider this a dream at all. You tell other people not to look beyond the next game and then do exactly that.
Because football can change. You miss a penalty and then the other team miss two. You go further into a tournament than you have in more than a quarter of a century and look up to see the big boys all gone. You listen to the players and read their social media and you find yourself seeing shared characteristics and people you like.
And when football changes, we change with it. From shouting at defenders to get rid of it, to lump it long when the press comes on, to contentedly watching them keep hold and play it out. From worrying which unheralded opposition player will be the bogeyman this time to relishing the world waking up to Kieran Trippier and Harry Maguire. From avoiding deathless England friendlies and their endless substitutions and meaningless results to wishing the next game was here now and being able to name Gareth Southgate’s first-choice team in a single breath.
One of the few lasting bequests of London 2012, a sporting carnival where too many big races now have asterisks next to them, was that sense – for a nation that spends so much time reflexively looking backwards – of a vision of modern Britain that felt simultaneously new and familiar to every one of us.
It was there in the stories of the three stars of Super Saturday: Jessica Ennis-Hill, a mixed-race girl from Sheffield; Greg Rutherford, a lad whose great-grandfather played football for England over a century ago; Mo Farah, a boy who arrived in west London aged eight from east Africa to make the capital his home.
This is an England team that represents the England of 2018. The pale kid from Sunderland in goal, a midfielder from Milton Keynes with a Nigerian dad and English mum. Three big lads from south Yorkshire in defence, a striker born in Jamaica and raised in the scruffy part of west London. Another midfielder schooled in Lisbon, a superstar captain who learned on loan at Orient and Millwall.