Euro 2008: football minus the self-loathing
England’s absence means we can enjoy watching football without chattering-class panics about hooliganism and ‘bling’.
Last week I urged the nation to get behind Italy at Euro 2008. On Monday night I watched ‘my team’ get well and truly stuffed by the Dutch. Except I suspect it wasn’t really the Azzuri but a bunch of blue-shirted imposters who looked the part – all Brylcreem and theatrical gestures – but gave themselves away by their un-Italian defensive frailties.
I wouldn’t write Italy off just yet – or even the Italy-lite we saw play against Holland. Starting big tournaments poorly is a trademark Italian strategy. Operation False Sense of Security: play like complete strangers, scrape through the group stages, and then raise your game in the knockout stage. It’s a classic bluff – think Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactic against George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle bout.
Still, even if Italy-lite don’t manage to qualify from the il Gruppo Della Morte I won’t be losing any sleep. After all it’s not really ‘my team’. There’s no emotional investment, no stomach-churning suffering. And that’s the beauty of Euro 2008. Yes, there’s a great big Peter Crouch-sized hole in the tournament where England should have been, but there’s something rather pleasant about watching the Euros as a detached neutral observer. As comedian Frank Skinner put it, writing in The Times (London): ‘For the first time in 14 years I can watch a major football tournament without the anguish, disgust and bitter disappointment I have to endure when England are involved. I have a chance to experience football as it was originally intended — as a pastime, a leisure pursuit.’ (1)
I think the BBC missed a trick with their ‘Who will you support?’ campaign. A better slogan would have been ‘Euro 2008: Football Minus the Self-Loathing’. We may no longer be world beaters at football but few other countries can hold a candle to us when it comes to the typically British sport of self-loathing.
At every major football tournament there are usually two types of English self-loathing. Firstly, there is the compulsion, usually led by the media and politicians, to beat ourselves up over the drunken, boorish behaviour of England fans. This year, thankfully, we have been spared the lurid tabloid stories about ticketless fans invading foreign cities or undercover, hidden-camera documentaries about ‘known’ hooligans travelling under the police radar. Of course, while muted, the hooligan panic doesn’t completely disappear. If there aren’t any hooligans, the fear of hooliganism still remains. In February a survey found that one in five Austrians was worried about English troublemakers.
The second strain of self-loathing is football-related. The inability of English players to hold their nerve during a penalty shoot-out has long been the cause of national anguish. But at least we had the occiasional heroic quarter-final defeat to look forward to. Now what do we have? The enduring legacy of the ‘Wally with the Brolly’ has been the birth of a new English disease: Losing Ugly. Under Steve McClaren, our football team has become a national embarrassment. The players can’t string two passes together and they seem incapable of replicating their club form for their country.
Few England fans shed any tears when Sven-Göran departed. These days, however, we look back fondly on the Sven era as a sort of Golden Age. How we long for the halcyon days when we could blame dodgy referees, broken toes or the cruel lottery of penalties for our failure to get beyond the quarter-finals. Now we can’t pass the buck. The national mood can best be summed up as: ‘We’re shit and we know we are.’
Of course it’s entirely legitimate for England fans to feel angry and embarrassed about the ineptitude of our national team. I’m all for fans booing the players off the park when they’ve performed like a pub team. Where it goes overboard is the wider handwringing state-of-the-nation debate that invariably accompanies every tournament exit. You know the sort of thing. Are our footballers paid too much? Have they been seduced by the bling and the Baby Bentley culture? Are there too many foreigners in the Premiership? Even Premier League chairman Dave Richards has joined in the self-flagellation. ‘Does the Premier League hurt the national side? I think the answer has to be yes’, Richards said this week.
While there’s a time and place for a sober discussion about how to improve the technique of homegrown players, let’s keep things in proportion. Things aren’t as wrist-slashingly abject as we think. English players who can shine in the Champions League don’t suddenly become bad players when they put on the England jersey. Rather the problem is that, on national duty, the individual players don’t gel as a team. Fabio Capello recently said that, when he took charge, he found that the players were suffering from a lack of confidence but that their technical quality was better than he’d expected. What’s broken with the England team is entirely fixable.
England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 has left something of a self-loathing vacuum in the tournament. Who, one wonders, will pick up the baton of self-hatred and batter themselves over the head with it? The smart money is on Austria. Still feeling guilty about Nazi war crimes, not to mention its burgeoning reputation as a nation of ‘dungeon-keepers’, Austria has yet to catch the Euro bug. Surveys show that a third of Austrians have no interest in the tournament, while German magazine Der Spiegel reports that ‘euphoria is nowhere to be found’ in Vienna (2).
Although Austrian hooliganism isn’t a cause for self-loathing, the national football team is. Over 10,000 Austrians signed a petition calling for their team’s withdrawal from the tournament because they were so bad. ‘Austria is by a long way the worst team at Euro 2008 and it’s hard to see what it’s doing there at all’, said legendary Austrian striker Toni Polster who gave his backing to the withdrawal campaign.
Jeez, those Austrians have some serious self-esteem issues. Are they England in disguise?
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.
(1) My advice to England fans for Euro 2008, The Times, 5 June 2008
(2) Vienna unseasy about approaching Euro Championships, Spiegel Online International, 30 May 2008
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