England gave the world its favorite game, but the world is remarkably ungrateful.
It’s not like the English marks aren’t there for all to see: the word ‘football’ itself, transliterated into many languages; the worldwide club names that reflect the anglophone ex-pat workers, gentlemen and soldiers who carried the game with them in the late 1800s (Athletic Bilbao, AC Milan rather than ‘Milano’, etc); even the imperial system that still measures the playing area, with its eight-yard goal, eight-foot crossbar, and 18-yard penalty area, with nary a meter in sight.
But when the England team comes out to play, the world tends to unite in opposition. The tendency is at its strongest closest to home — in Scotland, fans have set up a Facebook group to support “Anyone But England” — but it’s a sentiment whose sympathisers are to be found right around the globe.
Leaving aside the alleged terrorists who appear to regard the England vs USA World Cup match in Rustenburg, South Africa, on June 12th as the perfect venue for mass murder, most of the world will probably find itself in the extraordinary position of cheering for the United States. The popular stance will be partly justified by soccer’s undoubted underdog status in the kennel of American sports, but mostly by the fact that the Americans will be playing England.
Asked for a reason, people will often talk about English ‘arrogance’. In fact, you can argue that arrogance has been a quality in short supply in English soccer, except in the country’s over-excitable media in the run-up to major tournaments. English players are not especially arrogant — stupid, maybe — and when they’re playing are renowned for their honest endeavor and their usually limited technical skills. Perhaps this athletic stereotype has something to do with football’s English origins, before the rules were codified, as violent and freewheeling contests involving hundreds of people at a time across the pre-Victorian landscape, with little time or space for technique.
England played the first ever official soccer international match — a scoreless draw against Scotland in 1872 — but have reached only one World Cup final, at home in London in 1966. They won that game, with the help of a home-advantage refereeing mistake. They have never even reached the final of the European Championships. So they have little reason to be arrogant.
Indeed their players are the object of some amused international pity for their extraordinary capacity to be knocked out of major tournaments by drawing games and then losing the penalty-kick shootout. Five of their last eight eliminations came in this cruel form. The penalty shootout is often described as a ‘coin-toss’ by commentators, but England have come up ‘heads’ only once in six huge knock-out games: the one success happened at Wembley Stadium in London in 1996 during the European Championships, and was followed four days later by penalty-shootout failure in the same venue. Every World Cup winner since 1986, with the exception of Brazil in 2002, has had to win at least one shootout en route to the trophy.
The English penalty-shootout record, the worst in the world, suggests a certain psychological fragility in the players’ make-up, which can make them hard to hate, though easy to laugh at.
No, in the case of England the global distaste is surely related to the country in general rather than the football team. British imperialism rather than English footballing arrogance is the problem. And the late-20th-century morphing of that Britannia-rules-the-waves imperialism into junior-partner status in the US imperium makes them all the more despicable.
In South Africa, however, it is just possible that England will find a warmer environment. For one thing, the host country is English-speaking. The last time that happened, for USA 94, the English made the rare mistake of not even qualifying. South African fans know the English players well from watching the English league on television — shirts for English club teams are sure to be commonplace among the locals. And it seems black South Africans don’t quite hate the ex-colonial oppressor in the way they might if apartheid had not inserted a vicious new form of oppression after independence. In South African stereotype, under apartheid, English-speaking and English-descended whites were more likely to be benign that their Afrikaaner equivalents. South Africa shares with the US the rare distinction of being ex-British colonies where hatred of England is not the first code on the national DNA; and funnily enough, it is only in Africa (and perhaps the Middle East) that you will find ex-British colonies where soccer is arguably the most popular field sport.
It might help too that England are sure to have a number of key black players, including captain Rio Ferdinand. Then again, the English press could go and ruin any goodwill with their borderline-racist sniping at the event, its preparations and its organisers.
In the likely event of South Africa’s early elimination from the tournament, England will surely pick up some local support. Although a recent survey showed they trail behind the ever-loveable Brazil in South Africans’ second-preferences, they were well ahead of anyone else, and indeed are the first-choice team, over South Africa, among many whites.
Furthermore, England have two tremendously strong characters leading their efforts this year. The first is head coach Fabio Capello — yes, English arrogance is so low that the Football Association has been hiring foreign managers to take charge of the national team. (Such a move would be unimaginable in Capello’s native Italy, or in Spain, or Brazil, or Argentina, or France, or Germany, and unlikely in many other countries.) In his first national-team job after a trophy-laden career in club management in Italy and Spain, Capello has been an unqualified success, coaching England to easy qualification for this tournament. His teams can be dour, but they are always fit, prepared and disciplined. The English press tend to put enormous emphasis on the coach, apparently believing that the country’s under-achievements cannot be a simple matter of inadequate players in what is, after all, the home of football. So the Italian will gain legendary status in the English media if his team succeeds.
On the field, the English will have to do without the injured David Beckham. Someone said lately that Beckham has been ‘overrated’ for so long that he has gone all the way around to being underrated. Nonetheless, and despite his extraordinary ability from free kicks, Beckham contributes too little to a team and probably would not have been a starter in South Africa anyway.
The real talisman for England this summer is Wayne Rooney. As his name suggests, the Liverpool-born Rooney could have claimed an Irish passport and played in green, and with a stronger Irish connection than some players who have done just that. But Ireland’s loss has been England’s gain, because Wayne Rooney is one of the most complete attacking players in world soccer, with skill, strength, stamina, courage, directness and one hell of a shot. At times in past years his temperament has been suspect — footballers in England seem often to have trouble growing-up — but for much of this season he has looked unstoppable for his club, Manchester United.
Capello must have been quietly satisifed when Rooney picked up an injury at the start of April, and looked like he was going to get a month’s rest. But Rooney was so eager to play that he was back after barely a week, and as April and May wore on there were renewed question marks over his fitness and temper. In a couple of games he could be seen limping and moaning his way around the pitch, until he was finally benched toward the end of the month. But then he came back again, and last week he clutched his groin as he was substituted in Manchester United’s final game of the season. His ankle, his back, his groin and his head will have to be right for England to have a chance in South Africa.
Although there is no such thing as a one-man team, England are simply nothing special without Rooney, at least on the form of the top players in recent months. Former captain John Terry is typical: a year ago you would have called him one of the world’s most reliable defenders. In 2010, after an embarrassing tabloid expose of his private life, he has been distinctly uneven. What’s more, the revelation that the married Terry had sex with, among others, the ex-girlfriend of England teammate Wayne Bridge actually caused Bridge to quit the national squad. Bridge is not a great loss — unless England have an injury crisis in South Africa — but it couldn’t have done a lot for team spirit when Capello had to change captains over a sex scandal. Left-back Ashley Cole saw his marriage to a pop-star break up over his publicized infidelities, and rumors about midfielder Steven Gerrard’s private life are being splashed all over the internet.
It’s all very English: the tabloid culture, the immaturity, the inadequacies at crucial moments. If Rooney gets back on his game, and with Capello in charge, it is reasonable to assume that England have a real chance to win the World Cup. They not only got perhaps the easiest group in the tournament — USA, Slovenia, Algeria — but if all goes well they have a very negotiable path to the semifinals, avoiding 2010’s twin towers of Spain and Brazil, the runaway pre-tournament favorites. Anything could happen. But the more this team looks like England, the more you believe they’ll fail. Probably in a penalty shootout.