So here we are, once again. Every four years – if lucky – the chance to go for what Sir Bobby Robson called "the pinnacle". Being an England football fan is a harsh and unforgiving task. We seem to have been programmed into thinking that our standing in the history of the game and in the financial stakes, automatically grant us a place on the podium of footballing superpowers. But the record books do not lie, and for one reason or another, this country – so synonymous with the beautiful game that our grassroots culture is built around 'footie at the pub' and 'jumpers for goalposts' – repeatedly underachieves at major tournaments.
Jules Rimet is no longer gleaming; it's a reddish brown rusty hue in need of an acid bath strip. So if we all know how it's going to end – typically on penalties and in tears, preceded by nothing more than a whimper and a glimmer – then why do so many of us get caught up in the whole event? In a word, hope. The ambitions and challenges of this squad of players become those of the whole nation. Top-flight international sport is the most public reckoning at the outer limits of human ability, to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates' observation about boxing.
The other night, in a desperate and nostalgic ploy to feel the fever of another England World Cup campaign, I jumped on to YouTube and found this heartwarming portrait of Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne.
Suddenly, it all began to make sense. I was 10 years old when Gazza took Italia '90 by storm with his mercurial talent and Geordie cheek. The practical joker with a playmaker's poise. To this day, he is my greatest football hero – not just because of his ability, or how he delivered on the biggest stage at the tender age of 21, but how he always played with a smile on his face. Audacious, ebullient, at times sublime.
Picture the scene, so well captured in the 2010 documentary One Night in Turin. England, our green and pleasant land, was in disarray – both politically and socio-economically. In the football world, our fans were pariahs and our players labelled as "donkeys" by the media. What followed was nothing short of redemption. A coming together of a nation, behind a group of players that stood tall beside one another and dared to dream. Gazza raised spirits in the camp, inspired his teammates on the pitch and brought together millions. Pride was restored. What followed was an injury- and contraversy-marred career followed by a heartbreaking descent into alcohol. In review, a disappointing number of people would rather draw attention to his indiscretions than celebrate his patriotic and committed appearances for his country.
But this isn't a eulogy to Gazza. Here's the thing: Italia '90, and Euro '96 as well, were real high points in both sport and popular culture in this country. As London 2012 proved, we are at our best when we get behind those representing our country. In return, they usually respond, winning us over with their will to win. Especially when we least expect it, like during those glorious summers past. Rights of passage moments that spawned the career of many a footballer, no doubt.
The media has a huge part to play in this – drawing attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the team without crushing hopes before the team has even kicked a ball. It's a line that many papers and pundits struggle to walk. Either we have a "golden generation" or a group of "overrated underachievers". Wayne Rooney has taken more than his fair share of criticism, even from his own former teammate. The Premier League's highest paid player personifies the struggle of the national team. A match winner at domestic and Champions League level but with no goals from eight World Cup games. Other critics are quietly pessimistic – some might say realistic, questioning whether this team can even make it out of the group.
The other day there was a phone-in debate on The Wright Stuff asking, where's the World Cup fever gone in this country? There has been a conspicuous absence of St George's flags and team shirts, both spanking new and retro, of late. A few damp squibs piped up, saying how football didn't interest them. And that's fine, but why bring others down with your negativity? This tournament is a festival of football – one month and then it's gone for another four years. This squad has perhaps the best blend of youth and experience for many a year and preparations have been thorough. As captain Steven Gerrard has said, there can be no excuses now. "Time to walk the walk." Let's give them a chance. All we can ask is that they play with a smile, with no fear, and give everything on that pitch. After that, who knows… As The Sun loves to say at the moment: "England. Maybe, just maybe."
Pride and passion, heart and graft – they are all any of us could ask of one another.