England are a perpetual disappointment, or that is the belief at least. Falling short of lofty expectations with all the reliability of a Japanese hatchback, England’s national football team are the ashamed, expelled-from-secondary-school teenagers of the country’s national sides. Cricket and rugby have had their periods of respective glory in recent memory, Team GB is the darling of the nation thanks to their Olympic exploits, but the football team are an overpaid, underworking bunch of failures. The belief is that these darn footballers always fail: fail to entertain their fans, fail to attain the expected level and fail to capture the nation’s hearts.
Much of this is born out of one of the dominant the narratives in English football – that is, an inflated opinion of the quality of football in the Premier League. The great failures of a nation, as they are so often portrayed, are set impossible aims and attacked publically when they fail to reach them. Bemoaned for lacking courage or guts after their inevitable failure, playing for England is a thankless task. An ‘honour’ that sees your character questioned and you become the victim of the media the minute there is any inkling of failure.
Since the greatest day in English football history 50 years ago, the England national team has been limited to a semi-final appearance in 1990 and consecutive quarter-final eliminations in 2002 and 2006. Group stage failure in Brazil hurt, of course, but a difficult draw excused that outcome in the eyes of realists. 2010 saw a last 16 defeat to a Germany side that were playing some excellent football – hardly an embarrassment.
We must remember, too, that rarely is there a standout national team. Even when there is one team that looks far superior to their peers, they have historically fallen short. The Spanish team of 2008-2012 were a freak; no other nation has experienced that level of dominance. Their achievements were repayment to their fans for their own underachievement and were reliant on a core of players from probably the greatest club team in history.
The ground-breaking Hungary side of the 1950s and the revolutionary Netherlands team of the 1970s never won World Cups. Nor did the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s: throughout the history of the game, national teams, on the whole, aren’t often rewarded for being the best. France’s successes in 1998 and 2000 were down to the quality of the individuals rather than being an efficient unit, even the most recently successful Germany team were not the guaranteed victors at the start of the tournament. Each major international tournament has a handful of teams that are within a good run of form or luck away from winning the whole thing.
Being in contention for such a prolonged period of time is worth applauding in itself. The football is not as aesthetically pleasing as many would like, but that is the question for any national team supporter – do you value the entertainment of the team or the results more highly?
Most fans, I’d imagine, would rather England focus on lifting trophies. In the lottery of knockout football that is a losing battle. Personally, I would prefer England develop a unique approach, rebuild the culture around the game and focus on technique-based version of football. The national teams that really influence the sport do not have to win anything, they have to capture the imagination, do something markedly different and/or introduce a new audience to what is already the world’s most popular sport. Success becomes more likely with a refreshed approach: the greatest failure of the English game has been an inability to adapt to what is now a global game.
The hostility that the English national team are exposed to is unjust. Implausible targets and a misunderstanding of international football makes the task of an England manager almost impossible. The way national teams are judged is imperfect, but its failings are amplified for England. A biannual tournament, where a dodgy decision or a sole poor performance can ruin a summer, is unfit for purpose in many ways, but it is the only metric we currently have other than the curious FIFA rankings.
Success for England is not reaching the final each tournament, it is not even reaching the semi-finals. It’s the performances that should be the yardstick, not the trophies. But then again, maybe that’s the yardstick we’ve been using all this time without knowing it. Maybe England are such a disappointment simply their performances lack entertainment or inspiration.