Self belief is an impossible thing to quantify. The idea that sport reveals character rather than building it is, if true, a worrying aphorism for England supporters. Consistent failure at the World Cup and European Championships has led to a dangerous precedent that penalties, for example, are missed before one has even been kicked. Harry Redknapp has said what he thinks to be a contributing factor in England’s perennial underachievement at the major international tournaments:
“I sometimes think we overrate the opposition and don’t have enough self-confidence. Brazil do not have world beaters in every position and Robinho came to England and did nothing.”
There is some truth in Redknapp’s words. I can feel a tangible expectancy to fail, especially where penalties are concerned, and it is mirrored in the memories of the public and a compulsive media’s constant reminders. But the root of the confidence crisis is empirical; like winning is a habit, so is losing. Brazil (and Robinho, who will be starting) have only lost a handful of matches in their last fifty seven. We can think what we like of Gilberto, Juan, Melo and co but the effectiveness of their collective execution is unquestionable and they arrive, rightly so, as favourites along with Spain. Spain’s recent record is even more intimidating; one loss in fifty outings (and that came against none other than the USA, England’s first challengers).
Watching Spain’s second goal against Poland this week was something special. Success in football is not just about the talent at your disposal – England are prime examples – because to achieve a goal of such collective beauty and instinct takes more than individuals. We’re now at the peak of one nation’s talent pool and it coincides with an ethos of play that has been its premier club team’s identity for two decades. Torres, Villa, Silva, Iniesta, Fabregas, Xavi, Alonso, Busquets, Pique, Puyol, Ramos, and Casillas are a group talent of such ridiculous proportions that we cannot consider ourselves in their stratosphere. They really do have world beaters in every position. What’s worse is not simply that England couldn’t possibly have scored a goal as intricate, as smoothly manipulative and as instinctual as Spain’s, but that I can’t think of a vaguely memorable goal – or passage of play – from any one of our matches recently.
Van Persie’s volley against Mexico is another example of a team’s individuality meeting execution. There is a strong Dutch quality to that goal – swift play followed by an arcing, miraculous even, cross met by consummate technique. It’s an explosion of pace, precision and technique. Even Mexico displayed their qualities whilst in possession (movement, comfort, control), Japan their industry, Portugal their flair without the finish…my point is every team has an individual quality that is tangible in their play. And England’s is disjointedness. No team in the build up to this World Cup have I seen look as lacking in cohesion when winning as this England side. We have a palpable uncertainty of, not what we’re trying to achieve (a goal is always the end game), but how we’re trying to play. Maybe this hesitancy is rooted in a lack of self belief. But the lack of self belief is also not without reason.
I do however disagree with Redknapp’s claim that the issue is confidence. Ian Wright, Terry Venables and Harry Redknapp were asked their predictions by The Sun and each, unequivocally, said England. I think that now more than ever we see through blind patriotism and accept England as outside bets for the World Cup. Maybe their predictions are symptomatic of the real issue: we don’t overrate the opponents, we overrate our own abilities. Though Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and John Terry are world class individuals, they’ve never played in an England team that have – collectively – been anything better than average.
In complete honesty I would much rather England somehow set the tournament alight (much in the same manner as Holland at the Euro’s in 2008) and bow out in the quarters than have a forgettable run to the semi finals for example. Because no one really talks about Germany’s run in 2008; at least Holland were amazing for a handful of matches and scored a couple of incredible goals.
If you enjoyed this, you can follow me on Twitter