Tunisia 1 - England 2
Sassi 35' (pen)
The perpetual problem with being an England fan is the expectation before any tournament in any sport, that they will do rubbish and fail and that causes a case of extreme anxiety and sadness, when after escaping the early stages of a competition, they show competence and hold out a glimmer of hope; which is always smashed into the ground when the inevitable happens and they do rubbish and fail.
This is a perpetual cycle in the English press, when they help to lay the groundwork for collective amnesia, so that they can recycle the same story again and again. It is as if the heroes of today merely exist to replenish the stories of old. It's the same old song but with a different name since you've been gone.
My expectation before this match against Tunisia was that England would come out of the starting gate like a mad thing; take an early lead, before squandering it all because of some idiotic mistake and then either fighting on valiantly but losing or fighting on valiantly and winning this match, so that they can lay the groundwork for our collective amnesia.
This 2-1 result had all the inevitability of a dropped pie falling onto the railway tracks before being squished by the express service to the city that does not stop at this station. And so it goes.
I arrived at the match two minutes after the kickoff had started and was shocked and terrified that the team in white was being pummeled and having a silver plate being polished for its head to be placed upon. It wasn't until the first closeup that I saw that the team in white was actually Tunisia and the team in red was England. That number 10 player who was running merrily about was actually Raheem Sterling and the number 9 was Harry Kane.
The opening goal of the match happened after just 11 minutes when John Stones should have put away Ashley Young's corner with a header but that was denied by the Tunisian goalkeeper Mouez Hassen. That would have been it expect that he couldn't hold onto it and Harry Kane belted the ball into the back of the net from 3 yards away.
England then proceeded to play according to the script perfectly when Kyle Walker made an idiotic decision to manhandle Ben Youssef right on top of the penalty spot and bring him down. Why this went to the VAR is totally beyond me. There was no way that Walker's bout of idiocy was not a penalty. This was so obvious that even Blind Freddy could have seen it.
Of course Ferjani Sassi was always going to drill it from 12 yards. Of course the goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was always going to show pluck and ticker but ultimately have the ball drift past him. In this display of theatre, these things must always happen for the benefit of television.
The second half played out like the dance of destiny that it was always going to be. Instead of looking timid, this England side under Gareth Southgate has adopted a script of old and has decided to play pressing football but look vulnerable at the back; and this is how it played out. Tunisia played far more defensively than they probably needed to and so a lot of the second half was the English midfield attacking the Tunisian 18 yard box and then progressing no more. All holes were plugged almost immediately. Any England dead ball opportunities were duly wasted and the clock ticked on and on towards 90 minutes where either a disappointing 1-1 draw would be played out or someone would break the deadlock and either hope or anxiety would be laid down. In this particular edition, we got hope.
The second goal happened in the 91st minute after a corner, which bobbled around the 6 yard box before being turned in by the head of Harry Kane at the far post. England have got one step closer to booking their tickets to the Round of 16 and then the Quarter Finals, where they will then throw it all away.
I am at peace with this. We already know how the story plays out, we already know that there will be a glimmer of hope which will be held out and we all know that it will be smashed into the ground when the inevitable happens.
There is something almost majestic in monotony. The thing that people like life coaches and motivational speakers never seem to grasp is that for most people most of the time, life is mostly automatic. Despite their calls to live the best life that you can, even if you measure success by the number of toys, wealth, power, influence, friends, popularity, fame, prestige, whatever, that they choose to use, the vast majority of people in the world live relatively quiet lives. We look to the exceptions rather than the overwhelming drone of the majority and are disappointed and anxious if we're not exceptional.
The England team in practically every sport is a perfect metaphor for dealing with the expectations of life. If you constantly expect to be winning everything all the time, then the world will surely fail to deliver; even if you are someone who is statistically exceptional. If on the other hand, you are grateful for the little glimpses of hope that happen to drift along every so often, then there's a kind of nobility in accepting the inevitable.
So what did I actually see upon the pitch at Volgograd? I mostly saw an England side that was having fun, playing a Tunisia side that was also having fun. I didn't see any signs of bitterness or malice and what was on display was a high level of technical competence and prowess from both sides. If it had remained 1-1 or England had lost, I would be lying if I say that I wouldn't have been disappointed but that's kind of the point. Football and especially England as a metaphor for life, is to remind you of the impending inevitability of disappointment but that you should enjoy the moments of hope that occasionally pass by.
C'mon England, all the way to the Quarter Finals. Failure awaits!