By CATHAL KELLY
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
TORONTO -- This was meant to be the World Cup in which England finally learned how to enjoy their national game.
After decades of disappointment, the England jersey may as well be made of chain mail, so heavy does it appear to lie on the shoulders of anyone who wears it. In order to lighten the burden, they brought in a new manager, Gareth Southgate, with a new message: "We're not fussed, bruv." Southgate's main task heading into Russia has been absolving his players of the country's original soccer sin and then insulating them from whatever short-term failures might be imminent.
The day before the first match, he used the formulation never seriously spoken by the manager of any real contender: "Enjoy your football."
He was serious.
Ask Wayne Rooney how much he enjoyed his World Cup football. Or try David Beckham, Robert Green, David Seaman or any English fan born after the Second World War.
Essentially, ask every goalkeeper or anyone who has ever played against Germany.
England doesn't enjoy World Cup football.
It gets a bad bout of it every four years, and after a month or so it passes.
Through his starting lineup selection, Southgate was determined to turn Russia 2018 into an extended training camp ahead of Qatar 2022. He put together a team of effervescent young talents, a sort of soccer boy band, to achieve their new marching order of "What pressure?" On Monday, against Tunisia and the wishes of God, England did manage to enjoy themselves.
For 20 minutes.
Then it all started to go sideways again.
They did in the end narrowly take the 2-1 win off an egregious Tunisian error in extra time. Harry Kane, England's only effective player of the evening, was allowed to drift in, vulture-like and unmarked, on the back post from a corner.
As Kane headed in, Southgate - a man whose metabolic temperature runs so low he is one iced latte from slipping into a coma - came leaping off the bench as if he intended to punch someone.
Ninety minutes into the business end of his managerial career and Southgate's already got a bad case of Englanditis.
Though a victory, it was the worst sort for a team of England's reputation. During that first quarter of the game, they were so much the better team that a historic drilling seemed a certainty.
They'd scored once and missed three or four easy chances.
Tunisia didn't get within reasonable kicking distance of the opposing goal until the 22nd minute ticked over.
Then Kyle Walker decided the best way to play a ball hoofed into the English box was to spend a long time staring at his own goalkeeper, awaiting advice.
Having received none, Walker spun wildly around and caught a Tunisian forward in the head with an elbow.
Between that unlikely penalty goal and Kane's last-minute save, it was a good hour of panic on the streets of London.
The two players being sold as England's new offensive screw-turners - Raheem Sterling and Delle Ali - plodded about lethargically. Everyone else ran around like cats chasing a laser pointer. Their opponents laid-back, absorbed attacks and cycled the ball back to their goalkeeper so he could knock it out of the box. Then it would all start over again.
Say this much for Tunisia: They are fearless back passers.
And that's about all you can say.
If England has this much trouble with a team playing 3-D Pong, one shudders to think how they'll do against a side that has some intention of scoring.
As much as you might shudder to think it, I guarantee you the players will be shuddering more. This is already shaping up as "one of those tournaments" for England.
If there's any solace to be taken from this, it is that, for once, England is not alone on its march toward desolation.
By Tuesday evening, we'll have run through the first circuit of group games. We have already seen all the bookies' favourites play. The early verdict on their chances is that we're going to have to send the jury back to reconsider.
Because this verdict makes no sense.
Germany was beaten in a Freaky Friday game during which they swapped national identities with their opponents. Mexico was organized and unflappable. The Germans looked like a bunch of erratic talents who'd only just met on the bus over.
Brazil drew with Switzerland. In one sense, that was impressive since their best player refuses to pass the ball to anyone.
France needed help from the video booth to get by Australia. Argentina made Iceland look like Argentina. Spain has grown tired of playing the game straight up and has decided to spot the other team a couple of goals off the start.
Belgium was dominant in a 3-0 win on Monday - the largest margin of victory by any of the bettors' top 10 favourites.
But they put three goals by Panama, the Canada of Central America. So who knows what that really means?
All this uncertainty is disorienting.
We all know how World Cups are supposed to go: Seven teams we saw coming a long ways off make the quarterfinal, along with one plucky outsider. At most, two plucky outsiders.
What you expect during the first three weeks is a little effort by the supporting acts, at least one shocking lapse in personal comportment, and England finding a way to trip into a well. Then the world's adult teams show up and things get serious.
Could this finally be the World Cup in which the final isn't a coronation? Dare we begin to hope that someone outside FIFA's geographic VIP sections - Western Europe and eastern South America - is going to figure this out when it counts?
Well, probably not. History is historic for a reason.
But, like England in theory (if not in practice), we should all enjoy our soccer fantasies while we can.
England's Harry Kane, bottom, celebrates with teammates after scoring against Tunisia in Volgograd, Russia, on Monday.
UESLEI MARCELINO /REUTERS