The England squad is home. While many of us predicted an early exit for the team, nobody, not even I, anticipated that their tournament would be over by the time the second round of group games had been completed. Such was the manner of their failure that there can be little doubt as to the reason behind their World Cup humiliation. They did not fall foul of terrible officiating, there were no broken metatarsals, they were not victims of divine intervention or unscrupulous opponents feigning injury. They simply were not good enough.
It means that the recriminations of the punditariat have begun, but they have little to say, their job made all the harder by the fact that few would have done things differently. Roy Hodgson, the England manager, chose youth over experience, played a more expansive game than expected and claimed that preparation for Brasil 2014 had been exemplary. There was no attempt to despair at the vicissitudes of fortune; the shortcomings of the team were all too apparent. The problems of England’s national team are too fundamental, too systemic to be detailed in a tabloid headline.
Yet still they try. The Daily Mail tells us that England’s players “have no heart for passion play”; ex-England captain Paul Ince says that this England squad “lacks the passion”; Kevin Davies has bemoaned the “lack of passion”. And on and on and on… Harry Redknapp added to the passion-conspiracy with a mischievous announcement that Spurs players had come to him whilst boss at White Hart Lane, begging him to withdraw them from the national side. Despite interrogation-by-journalist, Harry refused to name names, presumably to spare Jermaine Defoe any embarrassment. The idea that England are primed and ready for glory if only the players would show more passion and desire and heart and pride is rolled out at every defeat and is as dully repetitive as you’d imagine Phil Neville to be if he were stoned.
It was, therefore, interesting to hear a variation on the theme. In a recent article, Jonathan Freedland dared to cross the Rubicon, jumping from commentating on serious issues to talking about football. His conclusion was that, when compared to the fist-pumping, anthem-singing superstars of other nations, England looked like a team in need of a national identity. At a time when David Cameron is busy conjuring the importance of British values such as democracy and tolerance – as though the Swedish love dictatorship and the Canadians are famed for their hatred and ill-temper – now is as good a time as any to hold sport up as a mirror for the state of the nation. Yet, just as Cameron’s attempts to engage us in a ‘conversation’ about ‘British’ values is an attempt to distract us from the problems of society, so the appeal to an English sporting identity is a red-herring. The national team are suffering because of the national identity; not a lack of it.
You saw it last year during the debates about the status of Adnan Januzaj. While the young Manchester United midfielder may have opted to represent Belgium at this World Cup, there was, for a time, a possibility that he might play for England. It prompted Arsenal and England’s Jack Wilshire to wade in with his conception of English football: “We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that.”
What a strange world it is where the footballers of one country are allowed to be ‘technical’ while those of another are restricted to “tough on the pitch”. The insularity is astounding and is a little reminiscent of the way over a century ago the Football Associations of the four home countries were invited to join the ranks of FIFA. They declined on the basis that there was little that Jonny Foreigner could tell the birthplace of football about football. It’s almost as if English football continues to say, “This is the way we play football. There is no other way. And it’s up to the rest of the world to catch up.” The trouble is that the rest of the world did catch up, and they did so many years ago. English football is still reeling from that shock. In a typically insightful piece, the Guardian’s Barney Ronay traces the current crisis back to the 1950s:
“Post-mortems will come and go from here, but perhaps the most notable England football anniversary of recent times is the passing of 60-odd years since, in the wake of humiliation by Hungary, the great Jimmy Hogan, one of the godfathers of central European football, was invited by the FA to take English coaching in hand. At Chelsea barracks Hogan gave a group of managers a masterclass in how to teach technique and touch to young footballers, with the intention of introducing ball-mastery and short-passing to school and club coaching across the nation, spreading the word as he had in Holland and Germany. Except, it didn’t work out with the FA. The post was never filled. And on we went, producing for the last half century spirited and athletically impressive footballers who so often against better teams seem to have no clear idea exactly how they intend to play the game”
The difference between the England team and the rest of the world isn’t a lack of passion. It is the result of a national football culture that despite the Premier League – the quintessential product of globalisation – remains horribly insular, that historically has struggled to deploy the likes of Hoddle and Le Tissier, that values work rate over talent, and produces world class talent by accident rather than design. If only the national football culture could shelve the little-Englander, UKIP-sounding, Churchill-wannabe, ‘this team’s not for turning’ soundbite-making, sing-along-to-Cliff-at-Wimbledon, no surrender bullshit, warm beer and village green mentality. Then, maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have to listen to the same discussion over and over again.
Oddly this is a World Cup at which national footballing stereotypes are being turned on their heads. The hosts Brazil may be playing some football that is most certainly pleasing on the eye, but it comes as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians protest against the staging of the World Cup, with many even cheering on the opposition. Both the Dutch and French squads are eschewing tradition by failing to implode in a fit of division and egotism. The German team may still lack a single star player but have developed a brand of free-flowing football that flies in the face of the dour efficiency that would grind out results in years gone by. Meanwhile Argentina owe their second round birth largely to the individual magic of a diminutive number 10. Because, well, some things just don’t change.