Perhaps the most poignant moment for me last night was, in between the joyous choruses of Icelandic singing, were those moments when the England fans sang. And what were they singing? Plaintive renditions of Rule Britannia over the always slightly comedic sounding brass that accompanies England games these days. Football as metaphor indeed.
The only surprise about last night is that anyone is really that surprised about last night. It’s been coming; it does in every tournament. The steps are always the same:
- Qualifying. We get through the campaign generally quite comfortably. We don’t really play all that well but we console ourselves by saying that “the boys did a job”, because it’s important just to “get results”, and it will be different when we play against better quality, as we’ll up our game. There’s time to get the flair part right.
- Pre-tournament friendlies. These are usually a bit mixed, but there are always one or two results that lead some fans to raise their expectation. This time round it was the Germany game. When that happens…
- …the media kick in. “Our boys” play in the world’s best league. We have a crop of wonderfully talented promising players. They’re “big game” players, because they play in “big games” all the time. Rooney is a world-beater (despite not having produced anything of any real note in a tournament in over a decade). This time, we have the players and the game to progress. This time we can actually compete. This time, we’re contenders.
- The group stages. The first game usually shows some vaguely positive signs. We generally end up disappointed with a performance that promises much, but in the end delivers little. By the end of the group we squeak through without ever looking convincing. In spite of this, the media still say that the best teams usually start the tournament slowly and improve. “The Italians always do that.”
- The inevitable exit. Sometimes it’s on penalties, but usually it’s the result of an underwhelming performance the first time we see a team of any real quality.
- Aftermath. This is where the recriminations start. The endless phone-ins saying how awful and overpaid the players are, how there’s not enough “pride” or “passion”. Ex-pros and pundits earn their corn by piling into tho the team and the tactics.
- Then we start preparing for the next qualification, and everyone consoles themselves with the fact the the Premier League season is only two months off. And so the whole sorry cycle goes on.
The only differences this time were in the degree of things. There wasn’t quite as much hype as usual; other things proved more of a distraction. But again, England were lacklustre in the group: possession-heavy yet ponderous, with few signs that they had any real edge, or indeed any real clue how to break down even average sides. The lack of focus didn’t help. There was no real sign that the manager had any real idea what his best side was, or even how it should play.
Then there was who we lost to. Before the game I heard pundits and fans looking forward to playing France, because it was “impossible to lose to Iceland”. Maybe the players thought so too, because they didn’t approach the match with a great deal of intensity. Iceland were well-organised, worked hard and had a fantastic support cheering them on. They didn’t expect to win, but they hoped. Remember, this is Iceland, with a population about the size of Newcastle (and around the same size as yearly net UK immigration, fact fans – around 330000).
Incidentally, well done to Iceland, who had a plan, played to it, did it well and deserved to win. They deserved it.
I heard commentators on Five Live last night sharing commiserations with the travelling England fans, “who spent all that money to follow the team.” Well, no one forces them to do it, and it strikes me as more than a touch optimistic to keep following a team that shows no signs of ever breaking the pattern of underachievement they slavishly adhere to every single tournament. Still it’s a nice holiday in France, eh?
Our domestic game doesn’t help either. The Premier League is awash with cash (for now, but we’ll come to that), but it’s full of foreign talent. Academy systems are pushing out players who will probably never play at the highest league level, because they can’t get past the imported talent. Our junior tournament performances veer from the encouraging to the awful. But, there’s so much money sloshing around in the domestic league that the national side is an afterthought to the clubs and their owners. And that’s not going to change in any hurry.
However, change is coming. Events elsewhere will leave a deep imprint on football. Brexit will change the shape of the English game for good, I suspect. There will be fewer foreign players. And those who are here will probably need to be offered more to play. English clubs will find it harder to compete in Europe, whose clubs will still be in the EU, so will still have all that free movement to exploit. It also depends whether the Bosman rules stay in place here. It may of course mean that academies will produce players who really will play first team football. But it won’t happen overnight. Will televised football be quite as much of a draw with an impoverished domestic game and clubs who won’t be able to tap talent in the same way that Real, Barça or Bayern can? How long will the Premier League money tap keep flowing? Who knows?
But one thing is for sure. The current cycle of the national side underperforming isn’t changing soon. And no, it’s doesn’t matter who the next manager is, so stop getting so bothered about it. Get ready for another disappointing exit from Russia 2018. You know it’s going to happen.