Growing up in 80s and 90s America, I was starved for televised soccer. The only reliable source was Dutch football at 6am, featuring exotic sides like Willem II, Go Ahead Eagles, and NEC Breda. That was immediately followed by Gaelic football, an intriguing chimera of soccer and rugby, which I’ve never seen or heard of since. On very special occasions, I stumbled across a European Cup match, most often involving Manchester United against a classic club from the mainland. I cursed as Nicky Butt shot high over the bar into a sea of ominous red flares. I swooned as Lee Sharpe used his heel to drag in a cross behind his standing leg against Barcelona. Given a binary choice between English and Dutch football, I chose to bear the cross of St George.
My first real memory of a major tournament was the England-less World Cup in 1994. I drank in even unappealing fixtures like Saudi Arabia vs Morocco and South Korea vs Bolivia. I watched Oleg Salenko put five goals past Cameroon and Diego Maradona enjoy his last, cocaine-addled swansong in the colors of Argentina. My heart sank as Ray Houghton scored to beat Italy in the group stage, while Arrigo Sachi sacrificed my hero, Roberto Baggio, following a Gianluca Pagliuca handball. I was in Foxboro later in the tournament to see Baggio drag Italy through against Nigeria, equalizing in the 88th minute before scoring the winner in extra time. My heart sank again as Baggio’s missed penalty in the final kept rising over the bar, high into the crowd at the Rose Bowl. None of this prevented me from declaring myself Buddhist and seeking my own “divine ponytail.” I’ve never loved another player in the same way.
Technology and television is scarcely recognizable in 2016 America, where I routinely ignore even moderately glamorous ties like Germany vs Slovakia. Having two kids under age two doesn’t help, but the fact is that I’m spoiled for soccer on TV. Still, I try to watch England whenever possible, because the national team continues to feel like an enigma with which I can entirely relate.
The English media, and by extension, English fans, must admit complicity in their team’s pathological failure. Familiar explanations are wheeled out in the post-mortem of each major tournament:
- The players just aren’t good enough, and the European successes of Premier League teams can be explained by a combination of foreign talent and successful marketing.
- The players are technically good enough, but haven’t the mental strength to handle the pressure of expectations.
The solutions are equally predictable:
- England must invest in grassroots football and coaching.
- England must embrace its historical strengths of athleticism, power, and directness.
- England must copy the style and structure of Spain/France/Iceland/latest winner.
- England must drastically reduce the proportion of foreign players in the Premier League.
- England must lower its expectations.
Each of these theories contains some element of the truth, but all are born of the obsession of England’s press and public with the national team. Given the talent at the disposal of so many managers from Erikkson to Capello to Hodgson, I’d conclude that the true barriers to success are psychological.
Monday’s defeat to Iceland gives credence to this theory. Clearly, England have hugely experienced players in Joe Hart (two Premier League titles), Gary Cahill (one Premier League title, 1 Champions League title), and Wayne Rooney (5 Premier League titles, 1 Champions League title). They have talent and dynamism in young players like Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier, Delle Alli, and Harry Kane. And yet they not only failed to perform against inferior opponents, they were absolutely embarrassed by them. Pity is the greatest form of contempt, and it was indeed pitiful to watch Kane blooter a free kick several yards wide. Rooney consistently sprayed passes into touch. Sterling couldn’t beat 31-year-old Birkir Sævarsson in a footrace. It was an astonishing collective collapse.
Barney Ronay’s excellent piece in the Guardian apportions the blame properly:
In the end the players are us and we are them. Like ill-mannered parents enraged by their ill-mannered kids, we stand there wondering why these normal, receptive human beings – not the best, but not the worst – play with such fear and angst in a knife-edge fine‑detail knockout game ringed by hostile faces.
This angst makes the English national team more complicated and compelling than any other, a subtext that in turn makes their matches more fascinating. At least for me, the day they break free from those shackles and win a tournament or even make a final, will be, at best, bittersweet.