Improbables to Unstoppables, England are Euro title hopefuls again. Has the reverse psychology worked?
Euro 2012: Smells like team spirit and looks like con job
During the 2006 World Cup, a television programme was broadcast in which Rio Ferdinand "merked" (translation: played practical jokes upon) various England or Manchester United teammates.
Gary Neville was given a speeding ticket by "police officers". Peter Crouch was menaced by "Russian gangsters". Wayne Rooney was asked to tell a boy that his pet dog was "dead". After each prank had run its natural course - a long time after - a hysterical Rio would leap from behind a bush, flick his wrist towards his victim and shout "merked!"
It was about as funny as a broken metatarsal but somebody must have thought it was good, because six years on the process has just been repeated on a far grander scale.
Yes, English football, even without the help of Rio Ferdinand, has just merked the world.
You thought we had really become more humble about our chances of winning a major tournament? Merked!
You thought we had lost that famous sense of entitlement? Merked!
You thought that football was not a couple of lucky victories away from "coming home" to the nation which gifted it to the world? Ha ha! You just got proper merked, ya mugs! (You cannot see this but I am flicking my wrist towards you right now, which is not easy to do while typing.)
Here is how the set-up went: England, humiliated in South Africa and rudderless after manager Fabio Capello's sudden departure, had "low expectations" of Euro 2012.
"What, little old us win the tournament?", blushed the players, fans and media. "Aw, shucks, we're just happy to make up the numbers."
It was all a con, of course, arguably on ourselves as much as anyone else. It was a clunking great piece of reverse psychology in which we realised that our success at major tournaments had been encumbered by an arrogant sense of entitlement. All we needed to do, therefore, was lose that arrogant sense of entitlement and the trophy we so richly deserve would be ours!
The merk was on.
However, unlike Rio, we sprang out from behind our bush far too early. What did it take to get us to shed the faux modesty and display our true feelings?
One draw against a lacklustre France, one freakish victory against Sweden (even Theo Walcott looked surprised when his speculative strike paid off, and Danny Wellbeck's pirouetted finish was breathtaking but surely unrepeatable) and a lucky win against Ukraine, aided by officiating incompetence.
In three scrappy games, England went from the Improbables to the Unstoppables - and the national media performed a U-turn of which Joe Stalin would have been proud.
Pundits such as Ian Wright, the ex-England and Arsenal striker, launched scathing attacks on "the doubters and haters", by which he meant anyone who suggested England might not win the thing.
A government minister who dared to suggest that England may not progress further was savaged by a national newspaper.
Clive Woodward, who led the England rugby team to World Cup glory in 2003, wrote portentously about "momentum" favouring Roy Hodgson's men.
Suddenly the no-hopers were not England but Italy. The ramshackle Azzurri, lacking the defensive linchpin Giorgio Chiellini and relying on the combustible Mario Balotelli for goals, were England's prize for topping the group and therefore avoiding a quarter-final clash with Spain.
It will be a walkover, apparently. And even if the players will not say so - despite Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard being invited to do so in the immediate wake of the Ukraine game - that does not matter, because we in the media will project our own assumptions on to them.
In 2010, a few sullen expressions were all the evidence we needed of deep rifts within the squad. Leaked photographs of the players drinking beer and playing cards were evidence that they did not care.
If similar photographs were leaked from the current camp, they would be indulged as the boys enjoying some well-deserved rest and relaxation between matches.
At this tournament, some rare good humour from Steven Gerrard and a daft goal celebration by Wayne Rooney (he mimed using Andy Carroll's hairspray) are all the evidence we need of fantastic team spirit.
The hopes of an entire nation rest not on a wing and a prayer but a wink and a sprayer.
For what it is worth, my prediction remains the same as it did before the tournament: England will go out in the quarter-finals, and the defeat will be blamed entirely upon one mistake by either a player or an official.
The real reason, however, is that Italy can defend for a full 90 minutes but England - as they proved in all three group matches - lack the concentration. To put it another way: England can merk, but the Italians can mark.
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