England failing time and again
It's always the same in England. The national team gets knocked out of the World Cup and the analyses come thick and fast -- on TV, on the radio, in the sports, letters and op-ed pages of the newspapers.
The manager has to go, of course. He should do the honourable thing and fall on his sword. The players, meanwhile, are overrated, overpaid, naive, arrogant, insufficiently patriotic. There are too many foreign players in the Premier League, that goes without saying. But can we delve deeper? Mrs. Thatcher sold off a lot of the school playing fields in the 1980s -- could she be to blame?
A political commentator in the Guardian thinks we might be fatally confused about our national identity, implying that it must therefore be simpler for a country with no complicated feelings about itself -- Germany, say? -- to win games; a correspondent in the same newspaper argues that "a squad drawn from a few elitist and wealthy clubs does not truly represent England, and "its defeat is a matter for rejoicing." Oh, who knows? Maybe he's right. As everything else has failed, maybe a squad drawn from the pub teams and minor leagues might do better. It would certainly be more fun to support.
The truly remarkable thing about England's two defeats to Italy and Uruguay is that they took the nation by surprise. We are always taken by surprise, every time we are sent packing early; and we are sent packing early just about every time the World Cup is played outside England. In 1950, the first time we entered the competition, we were beaten 1-0 by the dishwashers, hearse drivers and English teachers of the USA, and failed to get out of the group. We didn't get out of the group stage in 1958, either; England won precisely three games in their first four tournaments. We failed even to qualify in 1974 and 1978, so the introspection took place long before the finals in these years; we missed out on USA '94, too.
Even those who try to maintain cynicism about the England national team's chances might be astonished by some of the facts thrown up by an examination of our World Cup record. We have won precisely five knockout games in any World Cup played outside our own country; the very first was a 3-0 win over Paraguay in 1986. Two of these wins came during Italia '90, a 1-0 win over Belgium and a 3-2 win (courtesy of two Gary Lineker penalties) over Cameroon. A 1-0 win over Ecuador in 2006 was our last victory outside the group stage.
Denmark, Belgium, Paraguay, Cameroon and Ecuador are not, with all due respect to those countries, the kind of conquests likely to impress rival superpowers -- over the same period, (West) Germany have won 25 games on foreign soil in the later stages of the tournament. We have never beaten Brazil, Italy or Spain at any stage of any World Cup, and though there was a decent 3-1 win over a very good France team in a 1982 group game, France were seeded third in the four-team group, just as Scotland and Northern Ireland were in their groups.
So the first point to make about the failure of the 2014 campaign is that progress into the last 16 would probably have necessitated one of England's most impressive World Cup results, a win over either Uruguay or Italy in the group stage, two teams they have never beaten in the finals of any tournament. And as nobody believed that we were going to Brazil with one of England's most impressive teams, it was baffling to listen to the "realists" predicting exit in the quarterfinals. How were we supposed to get even that far?
The other thing to note is that many of the reasons given for England's failure are built around the notion of long, sad, national decline. This is a myth: We have, with the glorious exception of 1966, always failed. The foreign players, all of whom arrived in the 1990s, can't help us with the desperate inadequacy of the 1970s; Mrs. Thatcher and wage inflation do not illuminate the hopelessness of the 1950s, when there were playing fields for everyone, and Stanley Matthews was paid peanuts. Dutch kids have access to video games and junk food, and yet that tiny, Northern European country, with a population two-thirds smaller than ours, consistently produces world-class players.
This much seems clear: Whatever is wrong with English football now has always been wrong, ever since we began playing the game at international level. Maybe we simply don't like the kind of football that usually wins international tournaments. (Most English fans find the canny, slow, tactical Italian game unwatchable, for example.) Maybe we prize the wrong sorts of footballers: It's difficult to imagine a place for big, rugged, passionate and slow centre-back heroes like John Terry, Tony Adams and Terry Butcher in many other national teams. (Lionel Messi is 5-foot-6, and you wonder whether he'd be on the bench at West Ham or Sunderland if he'd been born English, a "luxury player.")
If England are ever to play in a World Cup final again, you can bet that the team will not include anyone who is now playing professional football. We need to begin with our 8-year-olds, and we need to start telling them that technique and intelligence, not strength and the will to win, are the qualities they need most.
What are England's best World Cup performances? The 1966 final would be top of the list, of course, and the semifinal against Eusebio's Portugal would have to be at No. 2 -- games played within four days of each other, in London, nearly 50 years ago. You might include the slightly surprising 1-0 group-stage win over Argentina in the 2002 tournament, even though Argentina were poor and failed to reach the knockout stage that year. And the last-ditch 3-0 win over Poland in 1986 is remembered fondly for Lineker's goals, and his emergence as a world-class striker.
But anyone who can't remember anything about 1966 would make an argument for the famous night in Turin, in 1990, when England played West Germany, and fought heroically, and ... well, they drew, actually. And then lost on penalties. Arguably, England's best performance in the 13 World Cup tournaments to which they have travelled was a defeat.
Perhaps when we have stopped hating our players and our manager and ourselves, we should look at that plucky, slightly unlucky 2-1 loss to Italy last week again. It wasn't that bad. We may even have to find room for it in the top 10.