England loses game – and all sense of perspective

Turning the defeat by Germany in a football match into a metaphor for society's ills is an even more risible spectacle than the England team.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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It was, as they say, a game of two halves. First there was the actual football match, in which England were beaten 4-1 by Germany and knocked out of the World Cup at the last 16 stage. A big disappointment but hardly a surprise to us world (cup)-weary England supporters. After all, since winning the World Cup at home back in 1966, England have only once got as far as the semi-final. And as another German, Boris Becker, once level-headedly reminded the astonished international media after losing a Wimbledon final, ‘No one was killed’.

Then, however, came the reaction to the defeat, played out across the British media: a carnival of breast-beating, hair-tearing angst in which pundits and political commentators of every stripe sought to find some major meaning in the result of a football match, depicting England’s loss as metaphor for all the various ills of our society, real or imagined. This was a more pathetic, risible and dispiriting display of national humiliation than anything managed by the execrable England team.

The response to England’s defeat confirmed that, however far the Brits might be from having a world-class football team, we remain contenders for the title of world leaders in ‘soccerism’ – the modern game of inflating the importance of football to fill the space where our national public and political life ought to be. (Although it should be admitted that in this field the English are arguably being outshone by the French, who have launched a national inquiry into their abject failure in South Africa led by, er, President Sarkozy, and reported under headlines such as ‘Future of France at stake’…)

Before the World Cup started, the soccerists built it up into much more than a sporting event. It was supposed to be a focus for national unity in these troubled times, symbolised by the flying of the Cross of St George over Downing Street by prime minister David ‘we’re all in it together’ Cameron. Plus it could supposedly provide possible solutions to everything from poor retail sales to child obesity – especially if ‘our boys’ did well or even won the thing. (The flipside was of course the other team of alleged experts in soccerism claiming that the World Cup would boost everything bad from binge drinking to domestic violence.)

Having inflated the importance of the World Cup so grossly, it was inevitable that defeat would bring big public disappointment and a media overreaction, with everybody from Cameron to St Stephen Fry feeling the need to bore us with their views. But things have gone even further than that since Sunday. A full squad of commentators with no known interest in football have dashed on to the field to try to find some deeper meaning in the result of a football match, of the sort that they appear singularly unable to discover in politics or elsewhere these days.

With a bit of fancy footwork, pundits from all sides have sought to use England’s World Cup flop as proof of whatever political prejudice they wish to peddle. So for professional ‘petrolhead’ bigot Jeremy Clarkson, Wayne Rooney symbolised our crisis of national pride and identity, with the England striker’s failure to sing the national anthem (which is obviously more important than his failure to score a goal) apparently embodying the sins of a multicultural education system. Boris Johnson, the Tory mayor of London who likes to assure us that he has the second-most important job in Britain, somehow found time to write a newspaper article blaming England’s defeat on the politically correct banning of competitive sports in schools.

On the other side, liberal team veteran Polly wally-doodle Toynbee suggested that it was Rupert Murdoch wot had lost it for England, through the corrupting influence of Sky television billions on the sporting ethos and footballers’ morals. Many other well-heeled observers concluded that England’s underperforming footballers, those overpaid and arrogant working-class oiks, were the bling-burdened scum of our counsumerism-addicted age, etc etczzz.

One particularly striking example of the rise of soccerism came with the media reports of how disappointed British troops in Afghanistan had failed to receive the hoped-for ‘morale boost’ from events in South Africa. It was as if even the men and women fighting Britain’s purposeless foreign wars are now expected to find their patriotic inspiration and sense of national mission from a football match rather than anything more meaningful.

None of this overblown soccerist nonsense of course makes any sense in terms of explaining the outcome of a football match. You might as well blame the failure of England’s defenders to get any of their angles or positioning right on the shortcomings of geometry lessons in British schools. So far as I recall, neither Sky nor anybody else was screening British football live and pumping money into the game back in the 1970s, when England failed even to qualify for two consecutive World Cup tournaments. Meanwhile Germany have a tremendous World Cup record that puts England’s to shame – three times the winners as West Germany and only once having failed to reach the quarter final – despite being so insecure in their postwar national identity that it has only been considered cool to fly the flag in the past two World Cups. Or if a lack of money and an unselfish commitment to the cause were truly the secrets of footballing success, then surely North Korea would not have been knocked out before England.

And suppose Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal had stood, as it surely should have done, to make the half-time score 2-2, and England had then gone on to win? It would have been an unlikely result, but hardly an unimaginable one to anybody familiar with the game’s foibles. Would that short-lived footballing success have meant that all was well with our society? Do us a favour.

Whichever footballing explanation you favour for England’s defeat – the technical and tactical shortcomings of the players, the fact that the FA appointed the one Continental coach who wants to play in the outdated ‘English’ way, or whatever – it can tell us nothing about the state of the wider world in which we live. The reaction to the match in the media, however, is far more revealing on that score.

And what of the attempt to scapegoat the absence of goal-line technology for disallowing Lampard’s goal and costing England the match? It looks like a familiar effort in patriotic blame-shifting, albeit a slightly half-hearted one given the clear-cut beating Germany ultimately handed out. Yet it also looks like another example of using football as a vehicle for the fashionable prejudices of the age, almost a call for ‘evidence-based’ sport alongside evidence-based policy and respecting ‘the Science’ on the pitch as well as in public discussion. As a general rule, the less somebody knows or cares about football, the more often they appear to favour the introduction of video technology. It was telling to see our posh boy PM suggesting that such technology is used in his favourite sports such as tennis and cricket, so why not football? It was left to the people’s pill-lock John Motson to act as the voice of reason, pointing out that unlike these sports football is ‘a game of continuity’. It is also a game of human passions and opinions of which blaming the referee for all our team’s ills is an inextricable part, and long may it remain so.

Meanwhile we might note that, as proof that soccerism is now an international phenomenon, the Australian philosopher and animal liberationist Peter Singer has stepped forward to argue that, by failing to tell the referee that Lampard’s shot had crossed his goal-line, the German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has apparently betrayed a global generation and missed a chance to change the world: ‘[Neuer] could have set a positive ethical example to people watching all over the world, including the many millions who are young and impressionable. Who knows what difference that example might have made to the lives of many of those watching?’ Who knows indeed, but such ignorance seems to provide all the more reason to pontificate.

The reaction of the English football-watching public, of course, was quite different from that of the prophets of soccerism. There was a wave of disapointment, bitterness and anger, but most of it soon turned, as one perceptive British plod in South Africa put it, into ‘an orgy of self-deprecation’. There was little sign of the sort of angst and soul-searching so dominant in the media game. Instead, the much-vaunted Shared National Experience of backing the England team largely morphed into a shared national expostulation of how crap ‘we’ are. After all, whatever the soccerist might think to the contrary, it was only a game, even if it was the biggest game for a while.

We at spiked are in no better position than anybody else to offer an obvious solution to the deep and long-term shortcomings of the England national team. But we can suggest that a positive first step in identifying the real problems in both our sporting and political worlds would be to kick soccerism out of football.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. He will be writing on the World Cup for the next two weeks.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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