Friday, 2 July 2010

England Used To Expect...

Although my home is Jersey, I am one of the many English people here, not a French-descended Jérriais. So, although I am not as dedicated a follower of football as many I know, I do like to watch the occasional big match, especially if it involves the England team.

Some of Britain's proudest contributions to the rest of the world have been our sports: Most international sports are either of British origin, or are the British versions of ancient sports. The most successful of all our sporting exports is soccer.

As a boy, I spent hundreds of school breaks playing in informal games, like billions of other boys all around the world. So I have a pretty firm idea of what the game is about.

International football provides an interesting medium for the expression of national cultures or characters. Eastern European teams are usually rather dour, African teams are passionate and fiery, Asian teams are disciplined and short of big stars and South Americans dominate everyone with their dazzling mixtures of individual skill, smart teamwork and ferocious will to win. And England, not only the home of soccer, but former motherland of an empire that spanned the globe and perennial winner of a millennium of wars expects its team to match them all with sharp tactics and indomitable spirit. Like many other nations, our soccer team is an emblem of our national pride, and we look for fine displays of heroic attack and defence linked up by shrewd midfield play and backed up by solid goalkeeping.

So, the 2010 World Cup has been a shocking experience for my country. The schadenfreude we should have felt at two of football's other great powers making ignominious exits in the group stages – France and Italy - was tempered by our own boys scraping a lucky draw against a team from humble Algeria, who totally outplayed our side. England's team did not even look as good as an amateur Sunday team in that match, and yet there was far, far worse to come.

Sunday's Big Match against our traditional foes, on football field and battlefield alike, was to be the cue for England's team to finally show what they were made of. Well, we found out, all right. At least David James, the goalkeeper, lived up to the country's reputation for top-grade goalkeeping. It is not often that a goalie wins praise for conceding four goals, but, in the circumstances, only letting in four of the long series of sitters the “team”, if that is the word for such an unco-ordinated rabble, gifted to the delighted German strikers was a brilliant performance. Even my ten-year-old daughter could see what was wrong with our defence. These extremely rich, extremely famous young men showed no appetite whatsoever for doing what earned them the riches and fame, and most of the time stood back and let the Germans get on with it.

Scandal after scandal has shown our pampered stars to be dire husbands, but their redeeming grace was supposed to be their sporting talent. Put to the test on the greatest stage, the talent, and even the spirit were totally absent, without excuse. If this team are the symbol of our nation, what sort of nation have we become? Idle, unco-operative, afraid of challenge and full of unconvincing excuses? Or just betrayed by unworthy representatives? I do hope it is the latter, but there is this worrying little worm of doubt that England 2010 was truly and fairly reflected in its footballers.

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