It reminds me of when Princess Diana died.

For the past few days, whenever one turns on the radio or television, somebody is lamenting the England squad's performance in the World Cup. Not since Freud first set up his clinic has there been such an orgy of navel-gazing. It would come as no surprise to see wilting bouquets adorning lampposts and roundabouts across the English shires, or black armbands on England fans' biceps, like a GP's pressure cuff (which many soon will need).

Where did they go wrong? goes the cry. Predictably, within hours of losing to Uruguay, sorrow had been deepened by recrimination, the disappointed lashing out at every available target, refusing to accept the statistical truth - as fixed as the law of gravity - that football has always been more about losing than winning. Even so, one fears for Suarez's good knee should he be spied unguarded in a lonely Liverpool alley in the months ahead.

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Nor will a few days see the end of the mourning. With tomorrow's match against Costa Rica still to be endured - what should have been a wedding now turned into a wake - the mood will only grow more sour, whatever the score.

What we are witnessing is nothing less than national grief. At stake is not just sporting pride, but a people's sense of identity which, for good or ill, is inextricably bound up with this most mesmerising but mercurial game. Even the country's economic health depends on the squad's fortunes, with a predicted loss of £300million to businesses now that England is coming home early, cutting short the anticipated jamboree of beer-swilling and barbecues. Indeed, by the time you read this the London stock exchange will probably be feeling the fallout as markets quake in the aftershock of world cup humiliation.

That so much can depend on a team's performance shows that football in England is far more than a game. On his first trip around Britain in the early 1990s, Bill Bryson remarked on two beliefs everyone seemed to hold: "One is that British summers used to be longer and sunnier. Another is that the England football team shouldn't have any trouble with Norway." A French visitor in 1725 remarked that among the populace's "very rude amusements" was flinging dead cats and dogs at people. Even more popular, however, was football. "In cold weather you sometimes see a score of rascals in the streets kicking at a ball, and they will break panes of glass and smash the windows of coaches and also knock you down without the slightest compunction; on the contrary, they will roar with laughter."

In other words, kicking a ball or watching others do it is a quintessential part of what it is to be English. Cricket doesn't come close, whatever poets and public schoolboys tell you. The sound of willow on leather is to modern England what sweet sherry is to a stag party: an irrelevant, incomprehensible echo of another age and class.

So crucial is the beautiful game to the English soul that pressure is fast mounting on the upcoming generation of footballers. One pities them. Before last weekend was over, hopes were already laid on their shoulders for the next World Cup, not to mention the European Championships in 2016. Indeed, as in politics so in football: England's best hope now seems to lie in Europe. When the qualifying rounds for that tournament begin, one does not need second sight to predict the terrifying focus that will be trained on these players. Anthrax microbes in a medical lab will come under less severe scrutiny.

With as much English blood in my veins as Scottish, I find the paroxysms of self-examination convulsing our neighbours painful to watch. The only comfort one can offer is that the English are reaching the stage we got to years ago: defeat as a way of life. The standard of most Scottish clubs notwithstanding, our national team's lamentable record has allowed fans to reach a state of extreme resignation and fatalism. These days our pulse is almost as low as our expectations.

As the inquest on English football intensifies, what is needed is not endless debate over the team's baffling philosophy on the Brazilian pitch, but for the whole country to adopt a more philosophical outlook. Who knows - the England squad might even learn something from that.