FORTY years ago, when John, Paul, George and Ringo were young, England won a World Cup. That brief and shining moment seems almost as long ago as Sir Francis Drake or Wellington.
Since then, the nation that developed soccer has skulked around in a mixture of nostalgia and shame, unable to duplicate that grand result.
This year, instead of excuses in advance and general self-abasement, English fans and commentators have convinced themselves that the nation could, just maybe, win the World Cup.
"Yes, and they have a right to, with all the great individuals on this team," said Frank Lampard, one of England's stalwarts in yesterday's 1-0 victory over Paraguay in the opening match.
The English controlled play, receiving an own goal off a David Beckham free kick in the third minute and then holding on in the heat. England's coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, never looks very happy but insisted he was, what with 3 points in the first match. He talked about the value of "suffering," which makes sense in the World Cup format. Some past champions have staggered through the first round, improving all the time, but coaches would prefer getting 3 points right away.
Another old champion, Germany, which won three titles as West Germany, came up with 3 points Friday night with an uncharacteristically offensive 4-2 victory over Costa Rica. If the goals keep coming like that, the host nation will be trouble for anybody, because Germany has plenty of collective memory of how to win this thing.
So does England, with its thousands of rabid fans in shorts and T-shirts and not much else, usually carrying a beer in their hands, and more inside. Most fans are quite civil, but a scouting party of the fractious minority was present in Frankfurt on Friday night, producing 18 arrests, mostly for public drunkenness. In other words, a normal evening for those lads. There were no military-style forays of the recent past, perhaps because of years of pacification and security effort by German and English officials.
It would be totally unrealistic to think that the high hopes for the national team would defuse the troubles in the street. The sport is only an excuse for the public acting out. But England does have its dreams.
The rich Premier League has become perhaps the best league in the world — light years removed from the dump-and-chase game practiced a generation ago.
England has produced some of the great offensive players in the world — the fleet Michael Owen, the brilliant passer, Beckham, and Wayne Rooney, one of the most feral strikers anywhere — under some conditions, enough firepower to win a World Cup.
The ambitions have been in jeopardy since Rooney broke the fourth metatarsal in his right foot on April 29. He gave indications of being ready when he resumed training last week, thumping six consecutive balls into the goal from about 20 yards. Then, when a ball happened to float near him at shoulder level, Rooney launched an impromptu bicycle kick into the net. Rooney did not play yesterday, as England went about surviving until he is in game shape.
Another bit of English baggage is that its Swedish coach, Eriksson, got tired of the news media snooping into his private life and has resigned, effective at the end of the World Cup.
The English public seems almost stunned by this squad because usually all English sports carry a tone of impotence. Nothing is more pathetic than being in England during Wimbledon (except during the recent hopeful Tim Henman years, now fading) or during a cricket test match against Australia. Tittering on the telly. Inward derision in the tabloids. Pythonesque apologies all around.
Germany has its own angst. This year's national squad does not carry the same intimidation it once did. Where is Harald Schumacher, known as Toni, the goalkeeper who cold-cocked Patrick Battiston of France in the 1982 semifinal? Where is Jens Jeremies, who hammered Claudio Reyna of the United States in the fifth minute of the 1998 opener? Even Oliver Kahn, the scary-looking old lion who carried Germany into the finals in 2002, is now sitting on the bench, watching as Jens Lehmann had two balls skitter past him in Friday's victory.
In the old days, German coaches hunkered down in rain, sleet or flat-out snow to keep a close eye on candidates for the national team, but this year's team is personified by its coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, who spends a good deal of his winter in that famous old German soccer hub, California am Pazifik.
The Germans are, to borrow Christine Lavin's folk-song title, sensitive new-age guys. Against Costa Rica they did not clothesline or gang-tackle anybody. Klinsmann, the former striker, loves offensive soccer, which does not sit well with many German fans (or players, for that matter). The Germans will have to toughen up against Poland on Wednesday in Dortmund.
Poland was so badly outplayed by Ecuador in Friday night's 2-0 opener that the Polish players seemed embarrassed to make the ritual exchange of sweaty shirts with their conquerors. Coached by the Colombian Luis Fernando Suárez, Ecuador displayed a mobile, intelligent defense that consistently surrounded the clunky Polish offense, and then counterattacked. They were a revelation. Old champs like England and Germany carry higher expectations.