England likable WorldCup squad winning plenty of supporters

One of the peculiarities about living in central London is that you are surrounded by folks who, like me, are not England fans.

It's a hugely diverse place and there are, as you'd expect, oodles of Scots, Welsh and Irish, but also plenty of mixed heritages, who identify as English or British but root for a different national side.

Then there are those -- weirdly many -- who are fully English but simply have no interest whatsoever in football.

And those who are English and love their football but care far more for their club side and are really quite blasé about the Three Lions.

Plus, of course, many who are not English at all and are merely guests in the capital.

In other words London -- or at least the parts I frequent -- isn't quite the hotbed of England support you might think it is.

And that gives you a certain vantage point when tracking the biennial boom-and-bust cycle that is the build-up and eventual exit of the Three Lions from a major tournament.

The pattern is familiar.

Six months out, the jingoism gets ratcheted up by the media, the flags of Saint George proliferate, 1966 alums get trotted out, ex-pros turned pundits start counting the number of "world-class" players England have (as if that phrase has any meaning at all), and there's talk of hype and pressure and "England expects."

And then they get knocked out at some point, and there are "root-and-branch" reviews and inquests and calls for England to follow -- depending on which nation is flavour of the month at the time -- the German, Spanish, French or Dutch model.

But this time, among the folks I speak to -- people who are in England but not "of England" -- there's an entirely different vibe.

They note that there is less bluster surrounding this national team, less hype, less references to World War II and Geoff Hurst. Fewer "WAGs," fewer poses in Armani suits, fewer nightclub escapades and fewer think pieces about how Player X must deliver and how the coach would be a fool to leave out Player Y.

The guy who cuts my hair -- who happens to Armenian -- told me something that has been echoed around the country for some time.

"You know, they are not very good, but they are the most likable England group I can remember," he told me while setting the clippers to '2.' "Maybe I will support them if they play against a country I don't like."

I can see where he's coming from. This has been an England build-up unlike any other. It just feels different. And there may be several reasons for it.

At the heart of it is the basic fact that expectations are lower than before any major tournament in a long time. The definition of "superstar" is debatable, so let's stick to numbers.

The XI that Gareth Southgate sent out against Tunisia in the opener featured just five players who started more than 75 percent of league matches for a Champions' League club last season: Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Kyle Walker and Ashley Young.

That's about as "household name" as you get. And Young is a thirtysomething jack-of-all-trades who has spent the best years of his career as a squad player at Old Trafford, Walker is a defender (and not the Terry Butcher-bloodied-headband type either), Alli and Sterling are kids and Kane, well, he's his own story.

The fact that he is engaged to be married but his fiancée hasn't done magazine shoots and most of us have no idea what she looks like sets him apart from past England captains.

Then there's Southgate himself. His predecessors -- Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson -- were hugely experienced, highly paid, proven big-name coaches. They oozed confidence (sometimes misplaced confidence, but, still confidence).

Southgate is a guy who was handed his first managerial gig straight after retirement, spent a ton of money and got Middlesbrough relegated.

His only other gig was as manager of England's under-21s: they finished bottom of their group at the 2015 Euros.

And yet when he speaks, he comes across as measured and sensible, as evidence that you don't just judge a manager on results and that a fancy resume is no guarantee of success (both of which, by the way, are true).

He's an avid listener who talks about "building for the long-term" and "philosophy" and "managing expectations" -- in direct contrast to the guys who came before. That self-effacing vibe evidently resonates with people.

It extends to the players as well. Most of them are either regulars at smaller clubs or fringe players at bigger ones, which confers an air of underdog status. They probably earn as much -- if not more -- than their colleagues from a decade ago, but they are generally understated and, right now, the public and media seem to like that.

What's more, the fact that -- apart from the Spurs players -- they are not big stars at big clubs means that factional rivalries are lessened relative to the Lampard vs. Gerrard vs. Scholes era.


The one guy who regularly gets stick is Raheem Sterling, but that's more of a weird obsession driven by a couple of newspapers (and not the sports sections either, but the news pages).

And it's no coincidence that whenever an anti-Sterling inanity comes to light -- whether it's criticism for a tattoo, taking a budget airline or eating a sausage roll -- most of the fans and media rally around him.

England's understated and humble approach at this World Cup doesn't make them a better team. But it does insulate them a little bit from the pressures of the past and that may make the players a bit more productive and less stressed.

And it makes the England experience that little bit more pleasant for the neutral.


image source:https://en.wikipedia.org

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