England’s Renaissance & The Nations League
Upon the blowing of the full-time whistle at Wembley yesterday afternoon, the England players hugged and celebrated. True enough, there are greater achievements in international football than winning a group in and qualifying for the semi-finals of next year’s UEFA Nations League, but in comparison with the torpor of so much of the last two decades or so, of friendly matches that meant nothing to anybody, it felt kind of refreshing to have sat down to watch a match that simultaneously did and didn’t matter.
The Nations League will take time to bed into our collective consciousness. It is a different format of tournament to anything else that takes place in the European football calendar, and the tattered reputation of the international and global game’s governing bodies will inspire distrust from some, even though the likely next-in-lines from the battle currently waging for the control of professional football are unlikely to have anybody but their own best interests at heart. And, of course, the very fact that its formation was to provide a competitive alternative to the swathes of meaningless friendly matches that take place across the continent every year means that there will always be for some for whom this is no more than a “friendly tournament”, despite that phrases’s inherent oxymoron.
The notion that there are competitive matches that professional athletes don’t care about is a very modern one, and is probably more a reflection upon those who express it than those who actually compete. Whether it’s a distrust of change, a desire to jump upon anything that the England team either does or doesn’t achieve in order to criticise them, or a desire to criticise any form of international football because of swivel-eyed club allegiance, there will always be those for whom nothing is or ever will be enough, either from the team or the players who make it up.
Was England’s come from behind win against Croatia “revenge” for their opponent’s win in last summer’s World Cup semi-final? Probably not. After all, a place in the World Cup final remains international football’s second most sought-after prize (after winning the goddam thing), and Croatia will always have that. Nevertheless, four points from six from two matches against an opposition that beat them in such an important match so recently (and, let us not forget, an away win against Spain) will likely have felt very satisfying to the England players, a job well done following the inevitable slew of hot takes that followed their summer adventure in Russia.
And that post-tournament post-mortem had to be thorough. Every avenue of discreditation had to be thoroughly analysed, and applied, where suitable. Every angle of bad faith, cheap national stereotype and tribalism needed to be examined. Every cack-handed historical or geopolitical allegory brought into play, because there are those for whom being English is the original sin, and anything else is mere detail. Everything had to be blamed – the draw, the VAR, the populations of countries that they beat, as though this in any way has ever been a reliable indicator of whether an international team will be any good or not – had to be raised before the team could be given any credit whatsoever, up to and including grudging, for what they had managed to achieve.
Once those criticisms – against which there is little defence, because they’re so seldom actually about what they’re about – have been appropriately filed, though, it is worth reflecting upon what the England team has managed this year. Twelve of the fourteen players used yesterday afternoon were under twenty-five years old, whilst there remains an entire extra tranche of young players who weren’t even involved in this match, but will almost certainly be involved in the future. In Harry Kane, England have probably the best player in the world in his position. The knockout stage may have opened up for them somewhat fortuitously, but they still made the semi-finals of the World Cup, an achievement that feels like a firm building block upon which to develop further. And the idea that England will drag a tournament into an aesthetic gutter on the basis of their mere involvement in it alone already feels like something of an anachronism. They play decent football. They remain likeable, both as individuals and a group. They won a penalty shoot-out.
Furthermore, this revitalisation of the national team has come about in a year when the club game has assumed something of a fusty odour. Last season’s Premier League was a walk in the park for Manchester City, and this season’s may well be too, in spite of the look of the top of the table at present. The Premier League has spent much of its first twenty-six years of existence believing that the one-sided procession to a league title is a foreign disease, proof that those confounded Europeans can’t organise a football league properly. But Manchester City’s league title last season and the results of matches played so far this time around seem to be demonstrating that the calcification of the Premier League may now be chronic, a condition that we have to live with, just as France has to live with PSG at the top of Ligue Un or Spain has to live with its tedious Madrid hegemony. There’s no competition here any more, so what’s the point in continuing to look for it?
On top of that, the recent Football Leaks revelations seem to be doing little more or less that club football might be even more of a cesspit than we had previously imagined possible. Whether it’s clubs circumventing rules designed – ostensibly, at least – to keep tournaments competitive as sporting events, players having clauses in their contracts requiring them to applaud supporters at the ends of matches, or below the radar scheming to start a tournament from which its founding members will be excused the indignity of relegation for two full decades, there is a growing sense that money is strangling the remaining life out of the elite professional game, that those amongst us who love football as a sport are starting to drift away from it.
Against such a background, it shouldn’t be that surprising that the national team doing well should have piqued the interest of many. After all, the corrosive influence of money may now have extended to every corner of the game, but it doesn’t feel as pronounced in the international game as it does in the club game, and in comparison with, say, the Champions League (which now feels like a lengthy preliminary tournament before the same old face swallow up its latter stages), the World Cup certainly did feel like an oasis of competitiveness and surprise in which nobody could depend on a billion pounds’ worth of slightly grubby oil money in order to be able to compete. When we consider the landscape of football in Europe at the end of 2018, why wouldn’t people be starting to look beyond the glorified exhibition matches that make up so much of our footballing calendar at present for something else?
When England supporters pause to consider this year, however, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that this team with this coach is everything that they could have hoped for. The team is imperfect enough for hope to not be wedded to expectation, but talented enough to allow the belief that even winning something might not be completely beyond them. The coach had a patchy record prior to taking this job, and so isn’t burdened by any particular weight of expectation. We have, however, seen enough of his man-management skills and heard enough about the way that he talks about the job and its challenges to be able to believe that he is the right man in the right job at the right time. In comparison with England have been at the end of just about every calendar year for a very long time, this match which simultaneously did and didn’t matter turned out to be a highly satisfactory end to a highly satisfactory year.