If you believed half of what you read in the media, you’d think that Saturday’s European Championship Qualifier between England and Israel in Tel Aviv was the most important match in England’s history. It’s four matches without a win for England now, and they’ve managed just one goal in that period of time. They have been wretched over the last few months or so, and it has slowly dawned on me over the last year or so that I simply don’t like the England football team very much any more.
I guess it started with the hype in the build-up to the World Cup finals in Germany last summer. This, we were told by everybody, was our shot. This, we were told, was England’s golden generation, the young team of 2002 had matured into one of the best in Europe. We overlooked Eriksson’s negative tactics and the fact that he seemed incapable of motivating his team to do anything apart from buy sports cars and waste money on card schools. We looked at the body of the team and saw what we interpreted as quality in most positions. We were wrong. They blamed the heat, the Portuguese, the referees… everyone except themselves. From kick-off against Paraguay until that last, desperate penalty against Portugal, they were simply out of their depth. The Swedes, who otherwise had a poor tournament, showed up England’s defence as badly organised and accident prone. Even Trinidad & Tobago kept their limp attack at bay for over eighty minutes. They never looked like potential winners of the World Cup, and were fortunate to get to be a penalty shoot-out away from the semi-finals.
The fact of the matter is that the England team don’t care about international football. Give any of them a truth drug and ask them whether they’d rather win the World Cup or the Champions League, and I guarantee you that they’d all say the latter. When they grizzled like babies at the end of the Portugal match, they weren’t crying because they were overcome with emotion, having strained every sinew for their supporters. They were crying because they’d lost out on massive win bonuses and the endorsement deals and improved contract offers that come with conspicuous international success. The appointment of Steve McClaren was, to a point, a red herring. It doesn’t really make a scrap of difference who the coach is if the team couldn’t give a toss whether they win or not. For the record, they made the wrong decision. Martin O’Neill was the only applicant even capable of motivating the idle rich of the England team, but was overlooked, reportedly for having too many ideas of his own. McClaren is a “yes” man. A lackey. As a club manager he didn’t win achieve much, and the worst thing for an England team bloated on its sense of self-importance is a manager who appears incapable of pulling any faces other than an infuriating grin and a slightly glum frown.
His record has been dispiriting, to say the least. Successive thrashings of a Greek team that looked like they’d been drugged and Andorra proved nothing whatsoever. We got to see the real England of 2006/2007 with an insipid performance in Macedonia, and it was wearyingly inevitable that the Macedonians would turn up at Old Trafford and shut England out for a 0-0 draw a few days later. Things would turn from tragedy to farce in the next game in Croatia, with a 2-0 defeat which was symbolised by Paul Robinson’s air-kick to gift the Croats a second goal. The truth is that the scape-goating of Robinson was harsh – all it did was turn a 1-0 defeat into a 2-0 defeat. England could have kept playing until five the next morning and they wouldn’t have scored. The injury crisis is another red herring. England Reserves may well lose to Israel on Saturday – but I’m firmly of the opinion that a full strength England team would do as well.
It’s best not to evaluate too closely why you support a football team, I tend to find. Such introspection can only lead to disappointment. However, with your international team, you have a common bond – your nationality. You might not like it, but you’re stuck with them. Due to an accident of birth, they represent you. The thing is, though, that this England team doesn’t represent me in any way. The majority of them earn at least three or four times what I do in a year in one week (this isn’t a jealousy issue, by the way, I’m not terribly materialistic and am happy so long as I’ve got enough to live on – it’s just that they inhabit a different universe to me). Also, to a point, I want my team to be play with pride. I have no great opinion on my “Englishness” in a wider perspective, but in a football sense it should mean everything to be picked to represent your country. Do you think that, say, Ashley Cole or Wayne Rooney ever stop to think about how lucky they are? Of course they don’t. They all represent the worst, most boorish and materialistic aspects of twenty-first century British life, and I don’t like them very much.
Will I be back, if or when they start doing well again? Probably. In order to do well, they’ll have to play with passion and pride. They’ll have to at least try, rather than merely thinking that merely turning up is enough. Well, that would be a start. Considering the history of the England football team, their supporters are remarkably tolerant of the team. They put up with more or less complete disappointment, and do get behind the team through thick and thin. When England, the management and the players, deserve my support again, they’ll get it. For now, though, they’ll have to do without me. I should think that they probably couldn’t care less. No change there, then.