Anyone who thinks England’s performance against Algeria was the team’s worst has forgotten all the other ones. Far from being unique, the match was like a quotation of past bad England performances: against Ireland in 1988, Norway in 1993, Northern Ireland in 2005 and so on.
It’s not just that we expect too much of England, though we do. It’s that we now expect too much of all the big western European teams. We must learn to go easy on them all, because the current mindset is making everyone miserable.
All bad England performances have certain eternal elements. The team plays with its heart – not its head. Fans and media complain about a lack of heart. And each time, England’s players look unhappy. Here they are, doing what they do best, on the greatest stage, knowing that football doesn’t really matter, and yet on Friday in Cape Town they looked like men craving therapy.
When a foreign player scores, he generally looks cheerful. When an England player scores (a fond memory), he usually looks enraged: clenched jaw, pumping fist, a man who has taught his detractors a lesson.
“Why are you unhappy?” you can imagine the therapist asking. And the player on the couch might sigh: “Everyone expects so much of me.”
Whether you are a student sitting exams, or an adult trying to do a job, the experience becomes stressful when you know that expectations are too high. That applies to all the big European sides. Their long-standing dominance seems to be fading, but fans and media have yet to notice.
It might sound hasty to proclaim the fall of Europe 10 days into the World Cup. It might even sound like the pundits who wrote off Barack Obama 10 days into his presidency. It might be that England will meet Germany in the World Cup final. So let me get in my argument quickly, before the facts jump up and bite it in the ankle in the manner of Gabriel Heinze, the Argentine left-back.
Up till now, the big five European countries – Germany, England, Italy, France and Spain – have completed nine games in total. They have won one: Germany’s dismantling of Australia. Other than that match, the Big Five have scored three times in eight games. They have also lost three times: Spain to Switzerland, Germany to Serbia, and France to Mexico.
These tallies are more dramatic than they sound. In the last World Cup, the only time a western European team lost to a team from another region was Switzerland’s defeat by Ukraine on penalties. True, that World Cup was played in Europe, but in South Africa the climate and time zone are European.
In other words, don’t blame England. Blame the region they represent. western Europe has just 5 per cent of the world’s population, yet from 1966 to 2006 it won a majority of World Cups.
But as this column has argued ad nauseam, the rest of the world is catching up. Bob Bradley, the American coach, is always sniffing around Barcelona and Milan. Switzerland, never previously much interested in football, in the 1990s aped the French system of performance centres for kids. Now they can bore Spain into submission. Algeria’s players have learnt dull western European tactics playing at middling western European clubs.
Expecting England to whip Algeria or the US is like expecting the return of the British empire. Yet fans expect it nonetheless. The unhappiness that this creates was best articulated by Wayne Rooney. Walking unhappily off the pitch in Cape Town, he leaned into a TV camera and said: “Nice to see your own fans booing you, you ‘football supporters’.”
Football supporters should revise their expectations. Here’s how to look at it: plucky England held the mighty US and nearly beat Algeria. Moreover, it could be worse – look at France.