There was a fascinating long read in the Guardian a month ago entitled “The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion?” in which Oliver Burkeman explored the age-old question about whether any of us have any control over anything we do. We are encouraged to consider a fruit bowl containing an apple and a banana. You feel hungry, you choose the banana. You could have chosen the apple. But you didn’t. Now you are eating a banana. Free will. A decision made. By you and you alone. You have successfully consumed one banana.
“So in the fruit bowl example,” Burkeman explains, “there are physiological reasons for your feeling hungry in the first place and there are causes – in your genes, your upbringing or your current environment – for your choosing to address your hunger with fruit, rather than a box of doughnuts. And your preference for the banana over the apple, at the moment of supposed choice, must have been caused by what went before, presumably including the pattern of neurons firing in your brain, which was itself caused – and so on back in an unbroken chain to your birth, the meeting of your parents, their births and, eventually, the birth of the cosmos.”
Now let’s replace the apple and the banana with 33 England players and make Gareth Southgate the subject of the exercise. Given he is just living out his pre-ordained life that was set in motion by the Big Bang, it makes it harder to be furious that Gareth has left James Ward-Prowse in a fruit bowl so he can’t come on and take a corner in injury time when England are 2-1 down to Germany in the last 16.
The radio phone-in becomes slightly trickier to navigate, of course. “Well, I can’t blame Southgate for playing Lingard on Wednesday night because it was pre‑ordained and, while we’re at it, calling you in the first place wasn’t something I chose to do – all my life just led me to this moment.” “Thanks, Dave, Mike’s a Norwich fan who thinks Max Aarons should have made it. Hi, Mike.”
There are, of course, philosophers who believe in free will and others who suggest it is important at least to find a way to believe to avoid society collapsing into nihilistic chaos. In a world where we do have the power to make choices, it is hard to explain to those who are wilfully enraged by Southgate’s gentle cull from 33 to 26. Ward-Prowse is good at set pieces. But you can’t just bring him on for free-kicks – he’s not a Subbuteo corner kicker. Ward-Prowse is a fine footballer but so are those who squeezed in ahead of him. The players missing out are good. The players in the squad are good.
“We, of course, are a bit myopic,” said Southgate after the squad was released – with reference to Kieran Trippier going under the radar because he plays in Spain. A bit? Trippier has just won La Liga, playing every minute he was available, benefiting from one‑on-one coaching from Diego Simeone. He filled in admirably at left-back on Wednesday, yet doesn’t feature in many experts’ starting XI because he isn’t on Match of the Day very often.
If anything in football is pre-ordained, it is the myopia of fans. England have good, young players – but are joint favourites for a tournament in which France have a forward line of Mbappé, Griezmann and Benzema, N’Golo Kante in their midfield and a squad with countless World Cup winners. Only now are people starting to listen to German football experts who say that Jadon Sancho’s form has been exceptional at the end of this season. He is the only player who naturally plays on the right of a three. It is not a crime to not watch the Bundesliga – but how reassuring that Jude Bellingham’s talents have been noticed.
There remains a desperation among some England fans to support the team through the lenses of their own clubs. Fury from Liverpool supporters when it was rumoured that Trent Alexander-Arnold had not been selected. Leeds fans discussing Patrick Bamford’s “numbers” at every opportunity. West Ham fans arguing for Michail Antonio. The latter two would not have been insane selections but their absence is neither a surprise nor a tournament-defining problem.
I remember suffering the same affliction in 2006, arguing with conviction that Aaron Lennon should replace David Beckham. Beckham scored or set up almost every goal England scored in that tournament. Had Lennon not played for Spurs, I doubt if I’d have made the case.
The blind love of a football team renders any attempt at perspective impossible. Some of the replies to Carlo Ancelotti’s “thanks for everything” tweet to Everton are a case in point. Colin’s almost heartbreaking “Did you ever feel anything for us?” Was Everton nothing to you, Carlo? Surely you felt it too? Those butterflies in the first few matches? Hugging Big Dunc? No? Nothing? It’s your club. It’s Ancelotti’s job. Why wouldn’t he go to Real Madrid?
But that blind love will do the same to me this summer. That desperation to see England win a tournament once in my lifetime. I will watch with that sickness in the pit of my stomach. I will get giddy. I will forget that other countries play football. I will lose objectivity. I will get too emotional at montages. I will wince every time Harry Kane’s ankles get near an opponent. I’ll pray for outrageous VAR decisions to go our way. My heart rate will double at the mere mention of a penalty shootout. I will hope.
History tells us that England won’t win the tournament. History also tells us that we just might. If we accept it’s pre-ordained, then it might make the whole thing a lot more enjoyable. Que sera sera.