The night before England play their first World Cup game is always long and full of terrors. As much as I try to steel myself, channeling the courage once displayed by such schoolboy heroes as Churchill, Orwell and Adam Ant, I inevitably remain tortured by a single stabbing thought: Will the players be home before their postcards?
If, in the age of email, that question appears a little dated, know that it was seared into my brain by a childhood psychologically pockmarked by English football. Our nation's finest swaggered off to every major tournament like explorers proclaiming they will scale an unforgiving mountain top, only to fall off an ice face somewhere just outside of base camp. Usually on penalties.
That makes our fandom the football equivalent of Charlie Brown attempting to kick a field goal with Lucy holding. I was actually glad when I read that the England squad expressed concern about the malaria tablets they have taken to prep for Brazil -- the side effects of which include vomiting, nausea, headaches and stomach pain -- because I realized those were the exact same symptoms I experience after watching them play.
Take Euro 2012. I sat in the press box at Kiev's Olympic Stadium and watched in shame and agony as England held on for dear life against Italy before wilting flaccidly in traditional fashion during the penalty shootout. As Andrea Pirlo mocked Joe Hart's strange face-pulling with a delicious Panenka, it felt like he had not only emasculated Hart and the entire England team, but also their history, and perhaps more importantly, their hope.
To kick off World Cup 2014, England meet Pirlo and Italy again. In the Amazon jungle of Manaus. On turf that has bedded about as well as a Wayne Rooney hair transplant. In temperatures more habitable for the anacondas, black caimans, piranhas and poison dart frogs that surround it than English footballers.
English football in the rainforest. All I can think of is a game that will tactically resemble the opening scene of "Apocalypse Now."
Do we have hope?
The Italians will be one of the most tactically flexible sides in the tournament. Though tight of jersey, flowing of locks and beards and heavy-handed on the hair gel, they are typically slow World Cup starters. Noble coach Cesare Prandelli has nudged them from a traditionally cautious side to a confident attacking team rife with imagination. The midfield is a threat; the forward line a mystery; and the defense, with injuries, a question mark. Given that Gianluigi Buffon is out, at least England have a chance of winning the battle of national anthems.
For all the talk of cult-footballer-vintner-poet-healer-visionary Pirlo being the key to the game, I believe the result lies in the hands of English manager Roy Hodgson. It is he who has brought so many new,faces, oblivious to the surrender in Ukraine. Adam Lallana. Raheem Sterling. Ross Barkley. The unsullied.
Hodgson is an avuncular throwback to a more decent time. Watching him in training surrounded by his fresh young English talents, I am struck by the same question I experience when witnessing my 70-something-year-old father befuddled by an iPad and its lack of instructions. Will he ever fathom how to work it?
In the wake of the Dutch's defenestration of defending champions Spain, Louis van Gaal was rightly lauded for his coaching fearlessness. As the media gushed with plaudits, I realized that I cannot remember when an English manager was last praised for his tactical bravado. Let tonight be that night -- one when English football stands up to the Italian challenge and the worst the jungle can throw at us, or at least channel the words of Churchill: "This is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure."