England’s elimination ritual

Image of Simon Kuper

“It was disbelief,” England’s midfielder Alan Ball summed up the mood in the team’s dressing room after West Germany knocked them out of the World Cup in 1970. England’s quadrennial elimination is one of the country’s few surviving national rituals.

It may happen in Port Elizabeth today: England need to beat Slovenia to be certain of reaching the second round. It is time to establish whether, on this occasion, each phase of the ritual has been respected.

Phase one: England enter the World Cup certain they will win it.

Alf Ramsey, the only English manager to win the trophy, forecast the victory of 1966. But his prescience becomes less impressive when you realise that almost every England manager forecast victory in the World Cup, including Ramsey both times he didn’t win.

Fabio Capello, England’s manager at least until this afternoon, observed this ritual. “My team, the England team, we can beat all the teams,” he said last month. Like all his predecessors, Capello spoke for a confident nation.

Phase two: the campaign is upended by a freakish piece of bad luck that the English conclude could only happen to them.

Here the current campaign breaks with ritual. Normally, the freakish bad luck happens in a later round: the tummy bug that felled keeper Gordon Banks in 1970, Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” in 1986, or David Beckham’s red card in 1998. This time, it came only 40 minutes into England’s tournament: the soft US shot that trickled through Robert Green’s hands into the net.

Phase three: England lose to a former wartime enemy.

In five of their last seven World Cups, they went out against either Germany or Argentina. The matches fit seamlessly into the British tabloid view of history, except for the outcome. England’s defeats to Germany, because of their grandiose yet repetitious character, are tragicomic. By contrast, elimination against a ski-mad country of 2m people would be merely comic (if you aren’t English). To honour ritual, England need to revive national hubris by triumphing against Slovenia, before losing to Germany in the second round this weekend, ideally on penalties.

Phase four: the nation decides the team is spoiled, overpaid and unpatriotic.

For some players “the triple lion badge of England could be three old tabby cats”, lamented the Daily Express in 1966, and possibly again tomorrow. The fan who wandered into the English changing-room and castigated the players for drawing against Algeria on Friday night felt the same way. “Most of them didn’t even try,” Pavlos Joseph said afterwards.

However, these ritual denunciations are coming too early. By tradition, English hubris swells to unfathomable levels before being punctured.

Phase five: a scapegoat is found.

Usually this only happens post-elimination, but the current squabble between Capello and his ousted captain John Terry is best understood as early jockeying to assign the role. Capello runs the greater risk. Ritually, England’s scapegoat is never an outfield player who has “battled” all match. Even if the player directly caused the elimination by missing a penalty, he is a “hero”. The ideal scapegoat is either a perfidious foreigner – Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006 – or an English management figure, such as chief selector Joe Mears in 1958. Capello’s bad luck is to be both foreigner and management figure.

Phase six: England enter the next World Cup certain they will win it.

It’s widely believed that England’s eliminations cause misery. In fact, the ritual provides comfort, by drawing the nation together, and connecting English past with present. That’s why it’s essential that the ritual sequence be respected. Here’s to England-Germany this weekend.

Simon Kuper is co-author of Why England Lose: & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained (HarperSport, £7.99)

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