Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The crushing weight of England's invisible "should"

I do still have to be Canadian at some point.  So, no I did not witness Landy's goal live.  And if I had I don't think if I would have fist pumped around the house and shredded my vocal folds, never to sing countertenor again.  I got most of that out of my system when I thought former Toronto FC player Maurice Edu had scored an historic winner against Slovenia the other day.

No, today was about watching England, a team I am cursed with caring about, and experiencing a very distinct "been there, done that" feeling.  The "rejuvenated" England performance after a particularly abject one.  A performance that says simply, "this is just good enough to beat this Slovenian team on this day, and that will have to do."  A performance that will likely cut in half the number of deliciously snarky adjectives available to the writers over at Guardian Towers.

The easy route when talking about England is to say they're an overhyped team with overhyped players, which is itself an overhyped statement.  Overhyped by whom exactly? The Sun?  I don't know how many times the E.A.S.Y. headline has been trotted out as the grand symbol of ancient English footballing hubris.  I've read various match reports for almost every single England qualifier (of which England won all but one), and none except for a couple after the Zagreb game were in any sense hopeful about England's chances against the world's best international sides in a World Cup.  Outside the tabloids, which nobody takes seriously anyway, the English press is certainly not playing cheerleader for the national team.

So why the over-compensation?  Some English print journos still write about the '53 Hungary game as if they just happened upon it after noticing the 6-3 scoreline on an archive microfiche, and are desperate to let us all know that England have been utter shit for sixty plus years and we just never noticed.  Others insist that it would have been much better if England hadn't won in 1966, which was a terrible tournament anyway because it was a) physical and b) Rattin was questionably sent off and a linesman got a big call in the final wrong. 

In all of this insane self-loathing there is an implication of an invisible but elephantine lack.  Much is said about the pysche of England players at big tournaments, but really they just share the sporting psyche of the entire nation, that England should be the among best national sides in the world but aren't for some reason. 

When pressed on this question, many journalists resort to pointing at Premier League wage bills, as if other favoured but knocked-out European sides didn't employ millionaire club professionals.  Barry Glendenning says England are the worst team in their group, rabidly bets against them after singing the praises of their lowly opposition, then minutes later says they should be beating these teams handily.  You can't blame Glendenning; he knows his role is to feed England fans in search of absolution from expectation after witnessing yet another wayward Lampard miss-kick or John Terry pass into touch.  These fans want desperately to be released from the unbearable "should" that has always enveloped England, and can only do so by making themselves believe England are shit, always have been, always will be.

But there is no "should."  England have not really underperformed at international tournaments. That doesn't mean they're an unlucky Brazil in disguise, nor does it mean they've always played like hopeless, tactically naive buffoons.  I agree with Jonathan Wilson when he declares at the top of Inverting the Pyramid, "I'm not convinced English football is failing."  A team that has won the World Cup once, fairly regularly qualified for it, and consistently landed a place in the knock-out stages, usually the quarter-finals, or indeed a semifinal place in 1990, has nothing to be ashamed about.  Failing to successfully navigate the million incidental moments in the thirty days of winning a World Cup does not make England "hopeless."  Neither does failing to pass the ball around like 1970 Brazil meets 2008 Spain.  England's draw with Algeria, while awful, does not require the major national overhaul of father-son sack-races, as Tom Dunmore pointed out the other day.

Other sides have long been aware there is no "should" at a World Cup. I watched the Brazil vs. North Korea game in a packed Brazilian bar, and man did they party after Brazil won.  They partied like fans of a team just insanely thankful to beat North Korea in a football match.  Brazil.  After a game like that in England, you'd see the men at the bar put their pints down and say, "I suppose a win's a win."  I don't suppose that will ever change, but some measure of perspective would be nice.  At least so I don't have to listen to the CBC's Nigel Reed tell me that England were "only marginally better today but it take much, much more to beat a team like Spain." 

Well, duh Nigel.

1 comment:

NS said...

Well, in the book soccerenomics it is pointed out for the size of population, national income and experience in international level England does not underachieve.There are complex statistical analysis to prove this as well. Fascinating read