Let’s not get our hopes up prematurely, but England may be on the verge of a historic footballing turning point. In the run-up to next week’s European Championship the portents are encouraging. The wise appointment as England manager of sober, sensible Roy Hodgson rather than so-called People’s Favourite Harry Redknapp has headed off a stampede of “God for ’Arry” headlines. Meanwhile, fans are refusing to travel in large numbers to Ukraine, partly because of high hotel prices but mainly because they see no likelihood of English success. Former England defender Sol Campbell’s warning of violence and racism in Ukraine, and his fear that fans who make the journey “could end up coming back in a coffin”, has depressed the mood still further. With expectations never lower, we may be on the verge of a breakthrough: to sanity.
Few countries have so unhealthy a relationship with their national teams as the English; a nation where endless evocation of past glories combines with a dearth of world-class players to make the manager’s job impossible. The team sets out on a wave of tabloid hype, expecting to win. In the second round or quarter-finals, they lose to more skilful opponents. This unleashes an orgy of national self-loathing, a search for scapegoats, and the England manager is depicted as a turnip. Even our jokes reflect our status anxiety. After England drew 0-0 with Algeria at the last World Cup, an email went viral: “I can’t believe we only managed a draw against a rubbish team we should have beaten easily. I’m ashamed to call myself Algerian.”
This biennial mood swing is not only absurd, it prevents us from playing to our strengths. That the surprise appointment of Hodgson may indeed be a step in the direction of putting that right is illustrated in the unlikely setting of one of Rome’s best restaurants, Le Tavernelle. The walls of the place are lined with photographs of the famous people who have eaten there: Federico Fellini, TV stars, politicians, popes John XXIII and John Paul II, and somewhere amid them all, Roy Hodgson. The man who used to coach Milan’s Internazionale may not be quite the nonentity of English popular imagination, after all. Hodgson, much maligned in this country, is certainly no superstar, but he is widely recognised and respected abroad. It may be a modest ambition, but that might not be a bad objective for English football as a whole.
Long ago, we learned to accept that inventing the spinning jenny and the railway does not entitle Britain still to see itself as the world’s leading industrial power. Nor do we mourn the passing of empire. And despite brave talk of “punching above our weight”, we have come to recognise that a nation that can’t afford a plane-carrying aircraft carrier is probably not among the world’s foremost military powers. So it must be with the national game: the historical accident of having created football gives us no reason to believe that we should still be the best at playing it.
For two decades after the England team had ceased to be all-powerful, in the 1950s, it retained an aura. In the 1970s, the German, Italian and Dutch teams were thrilled to record their first ever victories over the game’s mother nation at Wembley. Now it’s a matter of routine; so much so that as the contenders for Euro 2012 are weighed up, almost no one in Europe sees England as a likely winner (although, to be fair, no one saw Greece coming in 2004 either).
The scale of English invisibility struck me last week, in the wake of a long talk I had with Morten Olsen, the sophisticated coach of the Danish national team. We were discussing the influences and inspirations of Olsen’s footballing life: Dutch total football, his years as a player in Belgium, Brazil’s great teams of 1958 and 1982, Germany, Italy. In the course of a two-hour conversation the subject of England came up only a couple of times: he saw some English football on TV in the 1960s and recalled how beating England at Wembley in 1983 was a key stage in the development of the great Danish team he captained.
England’s ranking in the world game – Fifa, rather generously, had us in seventh place last month – is respectable. But compared with the big footballing nations, few young Englishmen play football these days, and our footballing education system is second rate. There are six times as many qualified Spanish football coaches as English ones, and cutting-edge soccer nations such as Germany, Holland, Spain and France churn out technically and tactically sophisticated players by the dozen.
By contrast, Wayne Rooney, the most talented English player in generations, and our only world-class striker, is almost entirely self-taught. Those responsible for his footballing education at Everton believed genius such as his simply could not be coached. So they just left him to it.
England has long-standing cultural disadvantages too. The game’s ancient origins lie in the sort of brutal, primal “folk football” games still preserved in a few places like Ashbourne in Derbyshire. The town’s annual Shrovetide game involves hundreds of players, though perhaps brawlers is a better word. Modern soccer, which emerged in the mid-19th century from various public school versions of such fighting games, was primarily designed to imbue martial values like courage and strength. The Victorians even promoted football as a moral defence against masturbation.
Having played football for decades as a rumbustious, chivalrous, “manly” endeavour, the English were baffled to discover from the 1950s onwards that Fancy Dan foreigners had reimagined the game entirely. In top-level international football, sleight of foot turns out to be more useful than stout of heart. To win world cups, a culture that produces subtle, creative footballers such as Zidane, Xavi and Iniesta is better than one that produces Lionhearts like Terry Butcher, Alan Shearer and Tony Adams.
Apart from England’s solitary World Cup win in 1966, the country’s record in major tournaments – three losing semi-finals in the past 60 years – is modest. In truth, England are the international equivalent of a mid-table Premier League team. Being bitter when England fail to win a tournament is as silly as it would be for Aston Villa fans to be angry about not being European champions.
Yet there is no cause for shame in England’s football, and indeed much to cherish. We win more matches than we lose and are generally liked abroad. The energetic, passion-filled Premier League – admittedly built mostly around foreign stars – is globally popular.
Roy Hodgson appears to be splendidly realistic. He tried to lower expectations at his first press conference, telling the media: “It’s difficult to say what would constitute ‘success’ at Euro 2012 … I’d like people to cut us a bit of slack.” Even some former England players agree. The Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher said in his autobiography: “The psychology of our international game is wrong … We should be revelling in the image of the plucky outsider trying to unbalance the superpowers of Argentina and Brazil, while matching the French, Germans and Italians.”
Or, as Giles Fraser, co-founder of the branding agency Brands2Life, puts it, England should stop investing “an inordinate amount of emotional currency” in its old sense of itself, and rebrand as a “challenger”. “We used to be a small country with an empire,” says Fraser, “now we are really just a small country. We once were a leadership brand, now we are a follower brand, potentially, but we are still behaving like a leadership brand.”
Above all, perhaps it is time to stop singing that “Three Lions” song about how decades of hurt never stopped English dreams of glory. The Jules Rimet trophy, which Bobby Moore raised in 1966, stopped gleaming a very long time ago. It was stolen from a bullet-proof glass cabinet in Rio de Janeiro in 1983 and never seen again.
David Winner’s books include ‘Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football’, published by Bloomsbury