When England get knocked out of this World Cup, an ancient ritual will unfold, writes Simon Kuper. Perfected over England’s previous 13 failures to win the World Cup away from home, it follows an all too familiar pattern:
Phase one: certainty that England will win the World Cup. Alf Ramsey, the only English manager to win the trophy, at home in 1966, forecast the victory. However, his prescience becomes less impressive when you realise that almost every England manager thinks he will win the trophy, including Ramsey in the two campaigns he didn’t. When his team were knocked out in 1970 he was stunned, and said: “We must now look ahead to the next World Cup in Munich where our chances of winning I would say are very good indeed.” England didn’t qualify for that one.
Glenn Hoddle, England’s manager in 1998, revealed only after his team had been knocked out “my innermost thought, which was that England would win the World Cup”.
The deluded manager is never alone. As England’s inside forward Johnny Haynes remarked after elimination in 1958: “Everyone in England thinks we have a God-given right to win the World Cup.” This belief in the face of all evidence is a hangover from empire: England is football’s mother country and should therefore be the best today. The sociologist Stephen Wagg notes:
“In reality, England is a country like many others and the England football team is a football team like many others.” This truth has never sunk in.
Two: During the tournament England face a former wartime enemy. In five of their last six World Cups, they were knocked out by either Germany or Argentina. The matches fit seamlessly into the British tabloid view of history, except for the outcome.
Three: The English conclude that the game turned on one freakish piece of bad luck that could happen only to them. Joe Gaetjens, a dishwasher, scored America’s winner against England in 1950 when the ball seemed to hit his head accidentally. In 1970 England’s goalkeeper, Gordon Banks, had an upset tummy and his deputy, Peter Bonetti, let in three soft German goals. In 1990 and 1998 England lost on penalties. In 2002 everyone knew that the obscure bucktoothed Brazilian kid Ronaldinho must have mis-hit the free kick that sailed into England’s net, because he obviously wasn’t good enough to have hit it deliberately.
Four: Moreover, everyone else cheated. The Brazilian crowd in 1950 and the Mexican crowd in 1970 deliberately wasted time while England were losing, by keeping the ball in the stands. The CIA (some say) drugged Banks. Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” scored for Argentina in 1986. Diego Simeone play-acted for Argentina 12 years later to get David Beckham sent off.
Every referee opposes England. His decisions that support this thesis are analysed darkly and his nationality is mentioned to blacken him further. Thus Billy Wright, England’s captain in 1950, described “Mr Dattilo of Italy, who seemed determined to let nothing so negligible as the laws of the game come between America and victory”.
Five: England are knocked out without getting anywhere near lifting the cup. The only exception was 1990, when they reached the semi-final. Otherwise they have always gone out when still needing to defeat at least three excellent teams. England won only five of their 18 matches at World Cups outside England through 1970, and didn’t qualify for the next two, so at least they have been improving since.
Six: The day after elimination, normal life resumes. The one exception is 1970, when England’s elimination probably caused Labour’s surprise defeat in the general election four days later.
Seven: A scapegoat is selected. The scapegoat is never an outfield player who has “fought” all match. Even if he caused defeat by missing a penalty, he is a “hero”. Beckham was scapegoated for the defeat of 1998 only because he got himself sent off after 46 minutes. He took so much abuse, he recalled later, that “I’ve got a little book in which I’ve written down the names of those people who upset me the most. I don’t want to name them because I want it to be a surprise when I get them back.”
Often the scapegoat is a management figure: Wright as captain in 1950, Joe Mears as chief selector in 1958 and many managers since. Sometimes it is a keeper, who by virtue of his position just stood around in goal rather than fighting. Bonetti spent the rest of his career enduring chants of “You lost the World Cup.” Only after a defeat to Brazil is no scapegoat sought, because defeats to Brazil are considered acceptable.
Eight: England enter the next World Cup thinking they will win it. “I think we will win it,” their manager Sven-Göran Eriksson said last month. Given that England may well face Germany in the round of 16, and/or Argentina in the quarter-finals, they probably won’t.
The World Cup as ritual has a meaning beyond football. Usually the elimination is the most watched British TV programme of the year, educating the English in two contradictory narratives: one, that England has a manifest destiny to triumph, and two, that it never does. The genius of “Three Lions”, English football’s unofficial anthem, is that it combines both narratives: “Thirty years of hurt/Never stopped me dreaming.”
There is an alternative universe in which Beckham didn’t get sent off, Banks didn’t get ill, the referee spotted Maradona’s handball and so on. In that universe England have won about seven World Cups. The English think they would have preferred that. But it would have deprived them of a ritual that marks the passing of time much like Christmas or New Year, and that celebrates a certain idea of England: a land of unlucky heroes who no longer rule the world, although they should.