England

World Cup: Why has England fans' optimism soared?

England flags at Kirby Estate in Bermondsey Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Residents of Kirby Estate in Bermondsey have gone all out in a show of support for England at the FIFA World Cup

There is a definite buzz around England as the country gets ready to roar on the Three Lions when they face Belgium later. But after a measured build-up to the tournament, and a widespread sense of realism over the team's chances, why have England fans' hopes suddenly raised as high as a John Stones headed goal?

All across the country, St George's flags are raised against a bright blue sky.

Despite it being more than half a century since we took the trophy - and many "years of hurt" when hopes were at fever pitch only to be dashed again - the English are brimming with sunny optimism.

The Three Lions-inspired "It's coming home" has been trending on twitter and even non-football fans are getting into the spirit with office sweepstakes and match-watching parties.

The World Cup has captured the nation because - for the first time in a while - we like the players, said Michael Caulfield, who was England manager Gareth Southgate's club psychologist when Southgate was Middlesbrough boss.

"A hallmark of his leadership is that instead of hiding them away from the media, he has encouraged the players to be very open about who they are and what they do," said Mr Caulfield.

"We know Danny Rose has suffered depression, we know Raheem Sterling's father was shot dead when he was two and we know Nick Pope was a part-time milkman.

"For the first time we have a real understanding of who they are as people and we want them to do well.

"They are not pretending to be perfect, they are normal people on a fantastic adventure and we are joining them on that journey."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Normal people on a fantastic adventure, celebrating goals like a bunch of mates down the park

That journey kicked off to a storming start with a last-minute win over Tunisia followed by a 6-1 thumping of Panama.

"A win like that changes the whole mood," said Mr Caulfield. "When you win it's a bit easier to get people to take notice and support you."

The nation is taking notice - England v Tunisia was the most-watched television programme of 2018 so far, attracting a peak audience of 18.3 million on BBC One.

And even on a scorching Sunday, 14.1 million watched England thrash Panama. That's over a million more people than watched Prince Harry marry Meghan Markle.

Chris Weston, 33, from Wellington in Shropshire, watched the England v Panama game in the Prince of Wales pub in Shrewsbury.

"It was absolutely buzzing," he said. "It takes a good result to get everybody excited.

"In the last couple of days I've seen more people wearing England shirts, with flags on their cars or on their houses than I've ever seen.

"Everybody is really looking forward to the knockouts and people are really starting to think this could be our time.

"It's great for everyone, there's a buzz around the workplace, in the street, everyone is talking about it.

"You wear the shirt and feel proud, it's not very often you get to do that."

Image copyright Kerry Weston
Image caption England fan Chris Weston has bought baby Alexander his first kit in time for the World Cup

Since England's drubbing of Panama, Poundland has reported a 20% increase in sales of England flags, a spokesman for the shop said.

"We're flogging them faster than Harry Kane can hit the net," he said. "We've shifted 56,000 balcony flags, 43,000 bunting flags and 35,000 car flags this week alone."

After the 6-1 win, searches for "England flags" peaked at one per minute on eBay. More than 9,000 St George's flags have been sold in the past 30 days - that's 12 per hour, the auction site said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Residents have re-named Wales Street in Oldham England Street

Meanwhile over in Russia, the English are equally as excited, according to Paul Dubberley, who has travelled the globe to watch the national team trying and failing to win World Cups for more than 30 years.

"After winning 6-1, everyone has got a good feeling that maybe we can go a little bit further than we have in the last few years," said Mr Dubberley, 58, from Aldridge, in the West Midlands.

"Before we left I don't think anyone was that optimistic but after the last two games I know there's a lot more people coming out to jump on the bandwagon."

He could be right - since Sunday's win, travel comparison site Skyscanner.net has reported a 168% increase in flight searches from the UK to Russia for the game against Belgium.

Image copyright Paul Dubberley
Image caption Paul Dubberley and Alex Waters celebrate the stunning victory over Panama at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium in Russia

Psychologist Mr Caulfield thinks the nation's warm response tells the players we are enjoying the ride and it is about entertainment as much as trying to win.

"The players are not wrapped up in fear carrying the weight of the nation of their shoulders.

"In the past there's been booing and hissing but now we know this team better we want them to do well.

"If they are eliminated, this isn't a group of players that will be seen as stark failures."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Football fans from England watch on screens the World Cup game between Tunisia and England at the official FIFA Fan Fest at Moscow State University

But even if we won't see scenes of backlash to rival the times effigies of David Beckham were burned or Graham Taylor's head was superimposed on to a turnip, are England fans still setting themselves up to repeat some mistakes of the past? Are we falling into the trap of yet again convincing ourselves England are the best team in the world?

The BBC's chief football writer Phil McNulty thinks not - and that the current positive mood is a natural reaction.

"England's expectations were actually measured before the World Cup but it is in the nature of football supporters for them to increase after a couple of good victories," he said from Russia, where he will watch the clash with Belgium in Kaliningrad.

"I am still not too sure many England fans believe they will win the World Cup but perhaps they also have raised expectations after seeing the likes of Brazil, Germany and Argentina struggle on occasions in the earlier stages of the competition.

"I think most England supporters are actually reserving judgement until they play one of the bigger countries, so I still think most people have realistic expectations."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The crowd at Croydon Box Park in London roared with joy during the England v Panama match

Mr Weston, one of those supporters, agrees - but only to a certain extent.

"The sensible thought is we've made a good start but the next games are going to be more difficult," he said.

"But we are playing so well that we've got a real chance this time."

And his wife Kerry Weston, 33, revealed: "After Sunday's game Chris kept jumping around saying we are going to be world champions. I kept telling him to calm down.

"We haven't had a great track record in the past but it's been great so far. I wouldn't normally have taken much interest but we've had beautiful weather so it's been lovely to watch the games outside."

Image copyright PA
Image caption A huge crowd of revellers at the Isle of Wight Festival watched Sunday's win over Panama on a big screen

Gareth Southgate glowed with pride as he watched back fans' celebrations following Panama's thrashing in an interview with the FA.

"This is the honour of being England manager - to have the opportunity to send people to work happy and bring happiness to our country," said Southgate, who also went to two World Cups as an England player.

Mr Caulfield believes the English are revelling in the chance to come together in a show of patriotism.

"The country is quite divided at the moment and the England football team is transcending it all and giving a bit of unity, hope and pride in being English," he said.

"We are sharing the joy and if it happens we will share the pain."

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