Offside, 18 June
Scratch the national euphoria surrounding every major football tournament and self-loathing lurks just beneath.
And so the hurt continues. We’re pushing 40 in hurt years but deliverance remains as frustratingly elusive as ever.
In the past few days we’ve seen exactly why any attempt to forge a new inclusive national identity (albeit excluding the other UK nations) from the episodic bouts of football-related flag-waving is doomed to failure. Scratch the national euphoria that now surrounds every major football tournament and you’ll find that self-loathing lurks just beneath the surface. It usually appears as soon as England are eliminated or our fans go on the rampage.
Take, for example, the late-night disturbances in the Portuguese resort of Albufeira. Even though UEFA has insisted that the trouble was ‘unrelated to the tournament’, prime minister Tony Blair has denounced the fans who ‘bring shame on our country’, while the Guardian’s Richard Williams, consumed by liberal self-disgust, has even insisted that ‘It’s time to send the team home’ (1).
The thin dividing line between national pride and self-loathing was all too well illustrated in Sunday’s defeat to France. For 90 minutes we were lions. But then a donkey clattered into a frog and…we all know what happened after that. If you’re going to forge a new nationalism then ‘Gutted’, as one national newspaper so aptly put it, is not the best of foundation stones. Gutted Britannia? It might not be the stuff of which empires are built, but that pretty much was the shared national experience on Monday morning.
If the myth of sporting invincibility was a characteristic of old British nationalism, then a deep-seated sporting inferiority complex defines our contemporary self-image. We crave glory but usually settle for heroic defeat washed down with a few swigs of self-deprecating gallows humour. Perhaps ‘We’re shit and we know we are’ should be the new national anthem.
I’m pretty sure that, had England not self-destructed so dramatically in injury time, we would have overlooked the shortcomings in our teams’ performance and Sven would have been hailed as a tactical genius. But having lost we cannot but help picking at the wounds. England defended too deep; we paid the price for sitting on a 1-0 lead; Rooney shouldn’t have been taken off; Heskey should have been left on the bench (or at home); Michael Owen should be dropped; Beckham can’t take penalties; David James’ positioning for the free kick was wrong – I’ve heard all these gripes in the British media over the past couple of days.
Eriksson’s has inevitably come under fire for his tactics. The Guardian website accused Sven of having ‘reverted to tactics alla Italiano’. ‘Eriksson the managerial donkey must be saddled with the blame’ bellowed a Times headline. Times columnist Martin Samuel branded Sven ‘A solid gold, 24-carat, 100 per cent doofus in the way he managed the final 20 minutes of the game’ (2). But did Sven instruct Heskey to concede needless free kicks just outside the penalty area? I don’t think so. We lost because we made a couple of errors and were ruthlessly punished by the world’s best player. Football has a habit of kicking you in the teeth every so often.
I think Eriksson’s tactics were pretty well suited to the technical abilities of our players. If people think England could have out-passed France for 90 minutes they are kidding themselves. We couldn’t have kept possession like gorgeous gliding Arsenal because, well, half of them were playing for France. Instead we had no choice but to play like West Brom – stifle the opposition, fight for every ball, nick a goal, and defend resolutely. Winning ugly is what they call it in rugby. And we very nearly pulled it off.
Perhaps the English should learn from the Italians when it comes to apportioning blame. Instead of dwelling on our own inadequacies we should always blame extraneous factors. The Italians traditionally blame the match officials but, after their lacklustre 0-0 draw with Denmark, they complained about the heat, their new boots, and even their socks. ‘It was like having your feet on boiling sand’, complained Francesco Totti who changed his boots during the first half. ‘I had blisters on my heels at the end of the game’, whimpered Christian Panucci. ‘The thread that these socks were made with is too rough.’ (3)
Why can’t we make excuses like that? ‘I was blinded by the glare from the floodlights reflecting off Barthez’s head’, explained David Beckham. ‘My boots were too springy and propelled me on to Makelele’s back’, claimed Emile Heskey. ‘There was no footage of Zidane’s free-kicks in the video that the FA sent us’, said David James – er, wait a minute, James did say that. Anyhow, you get the idea. Laying the blame elsewhere certainly beats English self-flagellation. Go on lads, if we mess up again, it’s worth a try.
(1) It’s time to send the team home, Guardian, 17 June 2004
(2) Eriksson the managerial donkey must be saddled with the blame, The Times, 16 June 2004
(3) Blistered Italy blame boots and socks, Guardian, 16 June 2004
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