It was a process that took around six years from top to tail in total, and it came in three very distinct phases. I had been a supporter of the England national team, reasoning that, with no foreign blood in the family tree and a knowledge that we weren’t all as bad as we were painted, I had to have someone to follow for international tournaments. In February 2003, though, that feeling started to become undermined. England played Australia in a friendly match at Upton Park, and Sven Goran Eriksson replaced the entire team at half-time. It was a tipping point. This were no longer even friendly matches. This was an exhibition match, to all intents and purposes an overblown practice match that could have been played behind closed doors at Bisham Abbey.
The next step came on the second day of the 2006 World Cup finals, when England ground out a mind-numbing single goal win against Ecuador thanks to an own goal. Eriksson’s anti-football ground out enough to squeeze the team through to an ill-deserved quarter-final against Portugal. There was, this time around, no drama, no excitement, nothing to quicken the pulse whatsoever. Just a dull, unimaginative goalless draw and a customary defeat on penalty kicks. This time around, though, that sting of defeat – that dull kick to the stomach that came with losing in similar circumstances to Germany in 1990 and 1996, Argentina in 1998 and Portugal in 2004 – had gone. We switched the television off and went to the pub instead. Meanwhile, the television pictures arrived at the conclusion that Wayne Rooney had stamped on Ronaldo’s thigh and deserved his red card. There was, as it had occasionally felt before, no “what if?” question to be asked. There wasn’t even that much drama about England’s exit. They had become, well, boring.
The final step in this journey away from the England team came last summer in South Africa. The Slovenia match was an afternoon kick-off and, without even barely noticing it, I found myself, for the first time in my lifetime, missing a live England match in the World Cup finals, and not even caring. The match Second Round match against Germany felt of little consequence, an inevitable defeat at the hands of a team that was superior in every department. The immediate post-match post-mortem was curious, though. In previous years, the Frank Lampard shot which bounced a yard over the line and would have brought England level at 2-2 before half-time in the match would likely have provoked a tidal wave of wailing, but it felt this time as if there was a tacit recognition that the oversight on the part of the referee probably wouldn’t have made that much difference, in the overall scheme of things.
Tub-thumping in the press has been aimed in different directions since then. As anyone that has been paying the slightest bit of attention over the last few months will already be aware, the ire of the fourth estate has become focused squarely upon FIFA and Sepp Blatter, to the extent that the sapling that was a concerted attempt to unsettle Fabio Capello has failed to come to fully blossom. England’s European Championship qualifying was solid, if unspectacular. England were, albeit from a modest group, one of only four nations to qualify from their groups without losing (along with Spain, Germany and Italy), and as the downward spiral of the “Golden Generation” has continued apace, the team itself has come to take on a slightly more modest air, one that is a little easier to, metaphorically speaking, do business with.
What, though, will be the public mood come next summer? We could speculate for hours over what the worst that the tabloid press could come up with at a tournament being held in Poland and Ukraine, what tabloid stories may come out about the players (or, indeed the coach) in the build-up to it or whether those that turned up in Germany in 2006 but didn’t travel to Japan in 2002 or South Africa last year. How many people will be whipped into a fervour of nationalistic expectation by those with a vested interest in making money? The recent debate over poppies demonstrated that England in itself has become a politically divided country, in which opinions are becoming more polarised and hardened. It would, perhaps, be complacent to merely assume that England will not fulfill many people’s stereotype of it next summer, with some quarters of the media egging them on. After all, it is hardly as if they’re not as capable of nasty, xenophobic bullshit as ever.
It could be argued that the Premier League juggernaut has diluted interest in the national team, that the Champions League represents European football’s real apex in the twenty-first century and that the likelihood is that international football will come to be less important over the next couple of decades or so, thanks in no small part to the intervention of the European Club Association and others that would seek to dilute the control of the likes of FIFA and UEFA over the game. It certainly feels as if expectations of what the England team is capable of here in England are as low as they have been for many years, and this is no bad thing. If the grip of insanity that sometimes seems to engulf this country during major football tournaments can be loosened, then all the better.
There will, of course, always be those that choose to hate England and the English for their own reasons, and there has long been an element of Millwall-esque, “no-one likes us, we don’t care” around the culture of the England national team which has manifested itself in several different ways, from the merely obstinate to the downright destructive. An greater element of modesty about the national team may, however, help to create an atmosphere which reclaims something of the English national identity from those that march through town centres protesting against something or other whilst reinforcing all of the worst stereotypes about those of us that live here. It may even make Euro 2012 tolerable for those us that usually seem stuck between a rock and a hard place when these tournaments come around.
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