The England Obituary, Part 3: “Ha Ha Ha!”, Or “Bloody Hell!”?
In the third part of our brief series on England at the 2010 World Cup, Mark Murphy reports on his four-yearly bout of schadenfreude and how England at least managed to give some people a degree of pleasure this summer.
The most virulent Scottish nationalists may want 27th June declared a public holiday after England’s World Cup exit in Bloemfontein – or, failing that, 18th June, the day of England’s draw with Algeria. But there was something about this England World Cup exit which may have tempered the delight of even the most loyal anyone-but-Englanders (ABEs). Under Sven Goran-Eriksson, the England team’s performances at major international tournaments – quarter-final exits in the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 – were, apparently, under-achievement on a grand scale, with sterile, clueless football to boot. From a neutral’s point of view, this was plain wrong. England played some good football in both tournaments, very good at times in Euro 2004. So when the England team were sterile and clueless, in the 2006 World Cup and in Euro 2008 (non) qualifying, the critics had nowhere to go. There were no words they could add to previous criticisms, apart from “sorry, we were a bit harsh before.” And those words weren’t about to be written. And now, in 2010…bloody hell.
The 0-0 draw with Algeria ought to have brought a “ha ha ha” to those keen to see England’s pampered poseurs brought to earth. But it just wasn’t funny. By the end of the evening, what was happening to the England team was shocking. For all their faults, England’s squad for South Africa had plenty of ability, and plenty which wasn’t just down to playing alongside the Didier Drogbas, Cristiano bloody Ronaldos and Daniel Aggers (er…) of this world. Genuinely good international sides should have convincingly won England’s qualifying group, said the critics. Well, England did, which surely made them a good international side. Yet with twenty minutes left against Algeria, you sensed the Algerians could win the game simply by untying the England players’ bootlaces at setpieces – because Johnston, John Terry et al simply wouldn’t have had the confidence to tie them up again.
This sinking confidence even transmitted itself through the poky little portable TV on which I have to watch the action when there’s a soap on the other side. By the full-time whistle I was genuinely fearful for the England team. There’s bad and there’s bad. And this was worse. Against Germany, England weren’t as bad as that… or as bad as “losing 4-1 when your keeper is man of the match” would suggest – with the ignoble exception of Gareth Barry and the centre-halves. Even the much-pilloried defending for the first goal can be excused a little by the distance the ball swung in the air (you watch it from the camera behind David James’ goal – even Ian Botham never swung it that much).
I watched only bits of the game live (and from the other side of a busy pub, even I could see that, yes, it crossed the line). But most of those bits were quite end-to-end and quite exciting. So I was able to let loose a wry smile at Germany’s four goals and Mark Lawrenson’s reactions, which most resembled a mother’s shame at her ten-year-old son’s inability to do up his tie (“oh, for goodness sssssake!!!”). Such a hockeying ought to improve the nation’s perspective on its football team. Yet it hasn’t. Not yet, anyway. The most damning aspect of the English media’s post-match soul-searching is that the best perspective has been supplied by the Daily Mail (ulp!!) and Martin Samuel (double… no, make that treble… ulp!!).
Essentially, Samuel condemns England’s players for a lack of football intelligence, a version of the old classic: “they haven’t got football brains, more like footballs for brains” – best personified by Paul Gascoigne in his pomp, a razor-sharp football brain but…well…you know… Samuel is quick to differentiate between this football intelligence and “exam smart.” He turns down a usual Mail target: “this is no treatise on our education system.” And he adds: “Lampard got Latin,” which must surely be a euphemism for something. However, there is one flaw in the characteristic of English players which is related to intellect and education and has led to problems with developing and progressing natural English talent.
ITV’s Matt Smith touched on it on Sunday night. It was only the third item in his sentence, let alone the entire discussion, and as such was over-looked by the panel. He noted that “England don’t export players.” And when it comes to “international” football, logic dictates that this is a hindrance. This has occurred to me before, and it did so again, listening to Thomas Mueller’s post-match interviews with the English media. Mueller’s English was very broken, but it was surely better than John Terry’s German (or – cheap laugh alert – John Terry’s English). And with media training fast closing the gap on ball skills training as an essential for the modern footballer, Mueller seemed instantly more equipped to forge a club career at the highest level than…well…Terry.
Cesc Fabregas joined Arsenal from Barcelona as a teenager. Leaving aside the myriad of other issues surrounding the import and export of players (and the view held by many that Fabregas is actually a nasty piece of work), could you imagine any English player making the return trip? It would be worth a look at England’s under-17 side, current European champions, to see how many could move to a La Liga club and adapt to the lifestyle and language as thoroughly as Fabregas. Gareth Southgate made the point about the German ability to progress their underage internationals through to the senior squad, as most clearly demonstrated by the under-21s who beat England in last year’s Euros.
In Germany, the progression is natural. It’s the same in Ireland’s Gaelic sports, where successful minors (under-18s) and under 21s progress more readily to the senior ranks. The major Irish national competitions are run on an inter-county representative basis and Roscommon, from where both my parents come, have recently improved thanks to the gradual emergence in their “senior” team of players who won the All-Ireland minor title four years ago, and were relatively successful at under-21 level this year (the senior team have only improved from “absolute s***e” to “quite s***e”, but it’s an improvement nonetheless). This simply doesn’t happen in English football. Yes, professional football is a hugely different scenario. But the progression should be equally possible. It won’t happen, though, as long as English players’ freedom of movement is restricted by insularity and an unwillingness to get proverbial bikes onto the Eurostar and look for work.
There are other issues, of course. Some of the current England squad fit the awful stereotype of young working-class boy with too much money. Living only a couple of miles from the Cobham/Esher area in which so many Chelsea players are based, you get to hear all sorts of stories about the likes of Ashley Cole and John Terry. The only one I’ve seen in print in national newspapers is Terry’s insistence on having burger and chips in a Lebanese restaurant. This is probably among the worst of the Terry stories, but most of them are almost as bad. So it is that while many people saw an admirable “do anything for my country” determination in Terry’s attempts to clear a low Slovenian shot with his head, I just saw the local village idiot. And the role of the Premier League is an article in itself – and you’ll not be surprised to learn that I don’t feel the Premier League has necessarily been of benefit to the England team.
Wigan’s Dave Whelan has called for the Premier League to “run” the England team, a literally non-sensical view on which I’ve already wasted too many words. And if Chief Executive Richard Scudamore is hauled into the debate, he’ll doubtless come up with some nonsense. Last time he simply noted that the Premier League must be doing all right by the England team because, as he really said in March 2009, “everyone bar David Beckham who is qualified to play for England at the top level is playing at home.” As Mark Lawrenson might say: “oh, for goodness sssssake!!”
So, “ha ha ha” or “bloody hell!!”? Well, a bit of both really. No ABE worth their salt is going to care for the whys and wherefores of England’s terrible tournament. So “ha ha ha” it is for them. For others, there’s always a perspective. Many outsiders would regard the Algeria game as a point for “Africa.” If you judge Germany v England by “normal” criteria – drama, excitement, chances – it was one of the tournaments better games to date, with England playing a positive part, albeit a small one. England got further than France or Italy, the 2006 finalists. And for “proper” perspectives? Back to the Mail again. Leo McKinstry identified what was wrong after the Algeria game: “Britain (good start, Leo) has lost its soul and character through shallow commercialism and mass immigration.” And as Richard Littlejohn wrote of England’s defending in Bloemfontein: “This was a collective surrender right up there with the fall of France in 1940.”