National hysteria could tear apart UK

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The four nations whose football teams will compete in the semi-finals of the World Cup – Italy, Portugal, France and Germany – are all surprised as well as delighted to be there, having come into the tournament with fairly low expectations.

Meanwhile, the two countries that had the biggest emotional investment in winning the tournament both crashed out of the competition this weekend. One was Brazil, a country whose reputation and image rests mainly on its brilliance at soccer.

Unfortunately, the Brazilians performed with an aristocratic disdain for trying too hard, and paid the consequences as soon as they met another half-decent side, the French. Having won five of the previous 12 World Cups, they will continue to regard themselves as unofficial champions anyway.

And then there was England, whose defeat against Portugal – unlucky in the end – brings to an end a period of national insanity that will be regarded in retrospect with complete bewilderment: a sort of North Sea Bubble. Mostly, it was harmless. In one crucial respect, it was not.

England have not won a thing since they had home advantage and the rub of the green in the 1966 World Cup. “Thirty years of hurt,” as the game’s anthem has it.

That was written 10 years ago and the pain refuses to go away, mainly because the nation keeps deluding itself about imminent recovery.

Every two years, during each European Championship and the World Cup, the country convinces itself with ever-growing intensity that this must be the time. This turned to near-
hysteria for the entire month of June 2006, and the first few hours of July. The politicians and media led the way, as usual. But this time even the betting markets, normally the most coldly logical of all bourses, joined in.

In the world’s first £1bn betting event, England were absurdly backed down to third favourites. This ignored the huge strategic errors made by the team’s £4m-a-year Swedish manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson, who ended up with a policy designed to ensure that his lone striker, Wayne Rooney, got the ball as little as possible. Not surprisingly, the team played dreadfully – until the final hour on Saturday when Rooney’s sending-off forced a different approach and galvanised the 10-man team into a final doomed effort.

But Eriksson had to cope with a systemic problem. English football, engorged by wealth, with its powerful clubs and combative league, is intensely competitive from August to May. The Premiership is now a showcase for players from all over the world, with a very small pool of home-grown players performing at the top level. And for the clubs, the World Cup is an irritating diversion that can damage their most important assets.

This was symbolised in the pre-
tournament combat between Eriksson and Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, who tried and failed to keep his man, Rooney, out of the squad because the club considered him unfit. Eriksson could hardly appeal to Ferguson’s patriotism. Neither man is English: Ferguson, of course, is a Scot.

And here lies the serious danger. Other countries are brought together by the shared emotions induced by the success or failure of their football team. This can be exaggerated, and usually is: there is a lot of airtime and newsprint to be filled. But the World Cup is a competition between nation-states with the lone exception of the United Kingdom which, for historic reasons, is split into its component parts.

Wales have not reached the finals in nearly 50 years; Northern Ireland in 20. Scotland used to get there regularly to perform quite heroically against the top teams and like twits against Iran or Costa Rica.

But Scottish football prowess has declined just as its own national consciousness has been growing.

The World Cup saw British politicians vying with each other to identify with England, which has 80 per cent of the population. The English flew their own St George’s flag, an almost forgotten emblem until the 1990s. Other parts of the UK grew increasingly bad-
tempered about it, the Scots especially. Cases of violence against exiled England supporters were nasty but isolated. The mood of irritation was not.

As football gets ever more significant, and the political and cultural implications of devolution sink in, this has the potential to destabilise the country in ways we cannot yet grasp. This might not bother Steve McClaren, Eriksson’s successor. It should worry Gordon Brown, the next manager of the UK.

The writer is an FT sports columnist

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