Many years ago – before Britain even entered the EU, let alone determined to leave it – a well-travelled South African explained to me a fundamental difference in outlook between the English and other Europeans. ‘If you call a Frenchman or Italian immoral’, he said, ‘he won’t care, he’ll laugh at you; call him stupid, and he’ll be seriously offended. For an Englishman it’s the opposite: he doesn’t mind any jibe at his intelligence; but call his morality into question and it’s like you’ve insulted his grandmother’.

I remember this remark from time to time when observing the ups and downs of international sport, particularly as rendered in press columns and on the airwaves of our national media    and, every four years especially, in the uniquely global psychodrama of football’s World Cup.  Professional pundits of other nations may analyse the tactical niceties of the game, the merits of ‘pressing high’, of ‘zonal marking’, of 3-5-2 versus 4-4-2. For English observers, tactical considerations seem to be secondary (though, if they bothered to notice, they might see that Gareth Southgate’s team have been employing quite innovative ploys at corners and free kicks to considerable effect). What matters is moral attitude.

So our first opponents, Tunisia, were negative and bruising, deservedly dispatched by  Harry Kane’s late goal. Panama may have been plucky outsiders but, foul and cynical in the tackle, they got their just come-uppance. Despicable Colombia did their utmost to destroy the game as a fair contest –  so fitting that we should come out on top on penalties. And how we have cheered as other teams’ heroes, Ronaldo and Messi and Neymar, have trudged off in sweat-laden defeat.  As for the Germans, who would have thought that their wonderful word ‘Schadenfreude’ could have such apposite use?  By contrast  the sangfroid of captain Harry, the gentlemanly demeanour of manager Gareth, strike us above all as moral supremacy.

Well, it does while we’re winning.  This column is necessarily written before Wednesday’s semi-final against Croatia. By the time you read it, if England haven’t made the final, our newspapers, airwaves and social media may have resumed some more accustomed targeting for moral blame. But if they have…..get behind the lads on Sunday, they could be our heroes for evermore.


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