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Come On, England! Ahead of Euro 2012, Why Has the National Soccer Team Consistently Disappointed?

14 minute read
Bill Saporito

As Euro 2012 gets under way on June 8 in Poland and Ukraine, a number of countries have reasonable claims to the continental title. Spain, the reigning world and European champion, will try to become the first team to win successive Euro titles, behind the ball-possession clinics run by midfield maestros Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. The German side, full of entertainment at the young feet of Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, also figures to challenge. Beaten World Cup finalist Holland has an argument to make, as does Italy.

Not England. “We have got to be a bit realistic,” noted Sir Trevor Brooking, director of football for the Football Association (FA), which governs the game in England, in a recent interview. “For once, the expectations are not great because countries like Spain, Germany and Holland are more favored than ourselves.”

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But, Sir Trev, aren’t they always? England’s national side is football’s most flawlessly reliable underachiever, serving up one calamity after another for nearly half a century since winning the World Cup, controversially, in 1966. England is the birthplace of modern football, the country that gave the game to the world and that today is home to the world’s best professional league and some of its top clubs: Champions League winner Chelsea, perennial power Manchester United and rising contender Manchester City. Yet no matter how well or how badly the team is constructed and managed compared with other global powerhouses, England’s media, and its legends, have stood ready to embrace the national delusion of footballing superiority — that every year is “our year.”

That’s why 2012’s not-so-great expectations should come as a relief to England’s wonderful, worshipful supporters, whose ranks have expanded well beyond a onetime core of lager louts to include virtually the whole country. England plays in Group D with France, co-host Ukraine and Sweden. It’s a not particularly strong group, France being the exception, but then again, this is a particularly weak England. Its midfielders Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard and central defender John Terry are creaking with age. The attack is missing its only first-rate striker, Wayne Rooney, suspended for the first two games of the tourney for kicking an opponent during a qualifying match.

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There’s been the usual soap opera in the run-up to the tournament. The recently named manager, Roy Hodgson, is considered a fallback second choice after the popular Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp. He’s been in charge for barely a month, his appointment trailing the resignation of Fabio Capello, the previous manager, after he contradicted his overlords at the FA by sticking up for Terry, the team’s serial delinquent and former captain. Terry goes on trial after the tournament for “racially aggravated public-order offense” for bad-mouthing Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand during a match last year. Terry has denied the allegation. The FA may be a somewhat feckless suit collection with a lousy record, but it will not have its honor challenged.

Glory, Glory
If you cross paths regularly with England’s supporters, as I do, you might find it quite logical to presume, as they do, that England is one of soccer’s reigning powers. It’s a passion that is bravely disproportionate to outcomes. Certainly, other countries have fans who are just as rabid. The Germans are as devoted as anyone to their Mannschaft. Orange-clad Dutch fans truly know how to have a good time watching the Oranje. Yes, soccer is way too important for the Italians to enjoy, and O.K., the French ultimately don’t give a damn. But all those teams have at least won something since the advent of color television. Nevertheless, in England, the depth of expectation is oceanic. You have to admire that.

To academics, the expectations of England’s supporters are understandable and deeply rooted in the history of empire and the notion of British exceptionalism. Great Britain conquered vast parts of the world in the 19th century and along the way created, codified and organized soccer to give the lads a little something to do between colonization campaigns. Britain ruled the industrial world too; its managerial class spread the game to South America.

National mythology is tough to shake, even when it is no longer apt or even appropriate. Earlier this year, David Richards, an FA board member, was speaking at a conference in Qatar, which will host the World Cup in 2022, when he launched an attack against the invaders who he claimed had “stolen” England’s sport. “England gave the world football. It gave the best legacy anyone could give. We gave them the game,” said Richards. “For 50 years,” he said with a formidable combination of nostalgia and bitterness, “we owned the game.”

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That is, as they say, history. “It’s a way of constructing our sense of Englishness,” says Jonathan Grix, a senior lecturer in sport politics and policy at the University of Birmingham. “We had a glorious past. Football and football support keeps this narrative alive. We don’t have that power in the world, so you invest it in something else.” No wonder every England-Germany game becomes a distant replay of World War II. (Even if the Germans now win most of the time.)

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But if England’s supporters suffer from a superiority complex, it’s a behavior consistent with the country’s broader sense of self. “It’s more to do with the fact that Britain, in general, completely overestimates its importance,” says Andy Markovits, a professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan who has researched football cultures around the world. Rather than behave like the big boys, Markovits suggests, the Brits would be better served by emulating the Swiss or the Austrians. Not likely, that.

And why should it be, given that England, not Germany or Brazil, claims the world’s top league and top teams? That’s another vestige of empire, says Markovits. The ubiquity of the English language — amplified in the past 30 years by satellite television — has helped turn British clubs such as Man U, Liverpool and Chelsea into global brands. That has attracted capital and fans from around the world: team owners now include Arab sheiks, Indian chicken magnates, American hedge-fund and real estate operators and Chinese financiers, not to mention the odd Russian oligarch. Worldwide television rights for the Premiership will bring in more than $3 billion annually in the next contract, money that will in turn attract great players.

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There are dozens of world-class footballers working the Barclays Premier League. Some of them are English — although never quite enough to make a difference when national teams come out to play. “With this global league as its domestic league, it’s difficult for even the best English players to get into these teams,” says Ivan Gazidis, CEO of Arsenal, whose team features foreign stars like Holland’s Robin van Persie. “That’s not surprising, because we’re a small island. But the bigger challenge is, How do we develop enough players who are good enough to make these global teams?” (Arsenal counts two England team members: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott.) One deceptively easy answer — to outsiders, anyway — would be to form a U.K. team that included players from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. After all, those countries fight wars together and send a unified team to the Olympics. Ah, but football is different: the Scots relish beating the English. It’s why no one from within the Home Nations would entertain the notion of a U.K. football team as even a possibility.

England lags behind the rest of Europe in youth development, having long subscribed to the belief that footballers are born, not made. The Premier League is trying to redress that liability by restructuring its youth-training scheme. In the past, development was local, with promising youngsters going to nearby teams. Now the Premier League is embarking on a best-against-the-best program, giving the top kids from across the country the chance to play against one another and benefit from elite coaching. The goal: 10,000 hours of supervised practice play, considered the threshold level for top-tier performance.

Such changes are needed to stay competitive. Consider that neither England nor Germany advanced to the second round in Euro 2000, but over the past decade, Germany has completely overhauled its program, while England’s futility lingers. The Germans were finalists in the 2002 World Cup and served notice at the 2006 World Cup that the rigid, risk-averse game they once mastered was being updated to fit a vibrant young team run by Joachim Löw. In Euro 2012, its Polish-born players Lukas Podolski (headed for Arsenal) and Miroslav Klose will be especially motivated. France, world champions in 1998 and Euro winners in 2000 — but a rebellious disgrace in South Africa two years ago — has also regenerated. Under their new manager Laurent Blanc, the French have forged a stingy defense, which is no surprise, given Blanc’s history as the heart of its world-champion team. And with Man City’s Samir Nasri and Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribéry, France has outstanding midfield attackers.

Defending world and European champion Spain, powered by the twin engines of Barcelona and Real Madrid, has become a dominant force with its stylish passing game. The Spanish arrive dinged up and hardly refreshed — its seven Barcelona-based players won the Copa del Rey on May 25, and the five recent Barcelona-Real Madrid battles may have taken a toll. But Spain’s brilliance at possession and a potent attack will keep it alive.

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While the Spanish midfield plays like a string quartet, England’s midfield veterans Lampard and Gerrard have yet to prove they can work together in any formation. Lampard (who is battling injury) is a football GPS with a genius for putting himself in scoring positions. And at Chelsea he gets the ball in those positions. Liverpool’s Gerrard, on the other hand, is like an extra electron that adds energy to a system — although not always where you want it. In Joe Hart, though, England finally has a keeper not poised for disaster. Alas, poor Rooney, a powerful finisher and willing passer with a nonstop motor, will have to idle for two games and pray that the third matters.

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The Media Maelstrom
Some football executives say the ferocious British press bears some of the blame for the team’s frailties. Club executives complain that it’s relentless and abusive. Players and their wives and girlfriends are pursued relentlessly for sensationalist headline fodder. (And all too often they deliver.) As a result, England’s FA is reactive and short-term.

As an American, I am more than familiar with a less-than-elite national soccer team. U.S. fans are just learning to throw themselves into the game, but they can ill afford the arrogance that accompanies, say, USA Basketball. But even the basketball Yanks have acknowledged that the world has caught up with America’s game and have adjusted accordingly. England’s supporters are never willing to admit the trophy isn’t within their reach. “This time, as always, we’re optimistic and go in believing that we’re champions,” says Mark Chappell of Rotherham, who often travels to watch England play.

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In the post-hooligan era, the faith of England’s supporters is, at the very least, entertaining. Take the past World Cup, when England and the U.S. were drawn in the same group. The scene outside Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa, on June 12, 2010, was a bit of Monty Python meets the third world. Beyond the paved road that ringed the modern stadium stood a tin-shacked, dirt-laned township. And tromping through it that afternoon, raising clouds of clay dust, was a steady stream of England supporters clad in faux chain mail, St. George’s cross shirts and crusader helmets, seeking to invade the few makeshift pubs set up in the neighborhood. They politely plundered the pubs, draining them dry, then moved on to the stadium fully expecting their team to dispatch their former colony. England had come to conquer, because that’s what England does.

On the pitch, though, another farce ensued. After gaining a quick 1-0 lead over the middling Yanks, England goalkeeper Robert Green fielded Clint Dempsey’s excuse-me shot like it was a loose chicken, practically shooing the ball into his own net. Gasp. England’s supporters tried to rally the team, cranking up the volume on “God Save the Queen” and chanting, “Come on, England,” easily drowning out the traveling Yanks, but the game ended in a draw. England’s fans were again left speechless, my English press colleagues appalled, as if they had just drawn with a minnow like, say, Algeria. Oh, they did that too, in the next game.

Drawing with the U.S. — and then being blown away by Germany in the next round — was bad enough, but I had already witnessed much worse. In Euro 2004, the disappointment was epic when a David Beckham-led team fell to host Portugal on penalties after a referee’s controversial decision disallowed a potentially winning goal. From my perch in TIME’s London bureau that summer, I followed the incredible media buildup for “our lads” and squeezed into the pubs — the high church of English football — with the rest of the believers. And England had a decent side. But there was Becks, hoofing a penalty kick over the bar, and Darius Vassell’s subsequent miss from the spot a punch in the national midsection. I have never heard the words “I’m completely gutted” spoken so often.

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The feeling doesn’t last long, and England’s supporters are more than good-natured about it. Self-mockery can be as soothing as it is amusing. Come the next big tournament, they are ready to be disappointed again. Warren Barton, a former England international now working for Fox Sports in the U.S., has seen it before. “They live on the edge of hope and expectation,” he says. “We have that arrogance that we can compete.”

Perhaps supporters should take a cue from Italy’s coach, Cesare Prandelli, who has already hinted loudly that maybe his team isn’t ready to win Euro 2012. That’s really setting the bar low. But you will not hear this from England’s Hodgson; the press would crucify him. In the aftermath of the coaching calamity that followed England’s qualification, though, the new reality may be casting its own spell. “It’s quite refreshing,” says Barton. “There’s been so much hype and expectation, you can suffocate. Now it’s just, Let them be themselves.” The thinking is that ol’ Roy will just let the boys have a go, and maybe England will surprise. The data suggest otherwise, says Markovits: “Empirically speaking, since ’66, zero.”

To Markovits, the more interesting question pertaining to British exceptionalism isn’t about the nation’s unfulfilled footballing aspirations. It goes back to a time long before football became important. “The real story is, How did this little nothing conquer a fourth of the world?” he asks. Maybe because the English believed so fervently, as do their football supporters, that they could.

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Forget history. It will take just two England wins in Euro 2012 and the delusion machine will be cranking again.

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