There's something very strange and slightly unsettling about watching the England women's football team. It's not just that they've reached the semifinals of an international tournament, though that is kind of peculiar. It's that the experience of watching them, as a neutral, isn't completely irritating. An England side that doesn't inspire the urge to take the television firmly in both hands, then introduce it to the nearest window? Surely, such a thing died out long ago.
It would be better, of course, to just enjoy the football as the football, without having to drag the men into it at every turn. England's run absolutely stands up on its own terms -- from Mark Sampson's tactical juggling to Jodie Taylor's recovery from injury to Fran Kirby's Messi-anic tendencies, the storylines spill over. Banging on about how "refreshing" the whole thing compared to the men runs the risk of sounding at best a bit patronising, and at worst completely, totally and massively patronising.
So what does it mean, this refreshingness? How did a country that produced such a boring, distasteful men's national team produce such a thoroughly enjoyable women's squad?
It's all about culture. Just because all of these players grew up in the same country doesn't mean the English women's national team players experience the same footballing culture.
Contrary to the somewhat underground and extremely underfunded Women's Super League, the Premier League is a profoundly toxic soap opera; an experimental circus of applied exploitation. It's a clanking machine that spews out inchoate anger and gleeful schadenfreude and hollow misery.*
*For the sake of balance, it is quite a good football tournament as well.
That culture makes England's male footballers into the awful people they seem to be: top-level professional football, and the circus that surrounds it, is essentially an exercise in breaking down human beings into hateable and lovable objects, the better to extract money from the congregation. Look at the Liverpool fans shouting at Raheem Sterling. Look at that effigy of David Beckham. Look at Jack Wilshere's face, then your own reaction to Jack Wilshere's face. Does any of that seem rational? Healthy?
The English men's team is also tied up with the lingering memory of 1966, and the fundamental English sense of inherent superiority over All Those Foreigns. It's a potent cocktail of self-delusion that manifests before every major tournament as, "Well of course we can win?" and then afterwards as, "You sorry, sorry bastards."
What's refreshing about the women's team, then, comes not from the fact that familiarity breeds contempt, or that women's football somehow "matters less," or that Steph Houghton is just naturally nicer than Wayne Rooney. It's refreshing because it points the way to a better, healthier, saner way of engaging with high stakes football. The right blend of incredibly important, imagination-capturing drama and appropriate amounts of fun, free of artificially manufactured drama. Perhaps this is refreshment born not of some hair-ruffling condescension, but of deep envy.
The cynics that moan that women's football will never be the equal of men's are missing the point. The Premier League -- and the English men's team -- isn't anything to aspire to be; they're a terrible warning of what happens to a sport when it breaks. The English women's team doesn't have to be that way. They're something different entirely, and that's wonderful.