Why Does England Lose?
I spent the last two weeks in England, a country I love very much, in part because its national character is so full of quirks. One such quirk is its majestically complicated relationship with its national football team.
In its first match in this year’s World Cup, a 1-1 draw with the U.S., the English goal-keeper made a horrible mistake and was subsequently treated as if he were French-born, or worse (and was promptly benched). After a desultory 0-0 draw with Algeria, the English team was pronounced total rubbish. Though the weather last week was divine, a cloud of self-disgust hung over the nation. But then, after thrashing Slovenia 1-0 and thereby advancing to the knockout round, the English team was declared fit for the Cup title, ready to roll over Germany and any other unlucky nation that might get in its way.
But Germany thrashed England yesterday, 4-1. Yes, there was a disallowed English goal that was clearly valid, but it’s hard to argue England wouldn’t have been sent home nonetheless. So once again the nation mourns. It seems unfair to the point of disbelief that a country that invented a sport could now so badly trail the rest of the world. (The same can of course be said about many things in England, including tennis. Summertime is a particularly sour time to be an English sports fan, as Wimbledon also reminds him that the world takes what England makes.)
Moreover, the nation looks for explanations for this routine football failure. Many explanations can be found in the book Soccernomics in a segment entitled “Why England Loses.” (This is well worth a read for any English football fan; essentially, you overvalue your football heritage and undervalue the benefits of innovation.) And many more explanations, some of them echoing the arguments in Soccernomics, have been trotted out in the English newspapers today.
- The English Premiere League doesn’t employ enough English players, thereby allowing too many foreigners to gain high-level experience at the expense of native lads.
- The English players in the EPL are too exhausted after the long season (although foreign EPL players are apparently exempt from such exhaustion).
- English technique is simply inferior to other squads’, whether the Germans’ hyper-organization or the South Americans’ run-and-gun; but, having invented the game, England still thinks its technique is supreme.
- English fans and media expect too much and thereby create too much pressure. (That might explain why Wayne Rooney and all the rest seemed scared to even take a shot in the Algeria draw.)
- Because “our best players are just not as good as everyone says, and the rest of the team are just average.”
- England is snakebit, and had typically poor pre-tourney luck, with injuries to Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King, and even David Beckham.
Here’s my favorite explanation, from London’s outspoken mayor Boris Johnson, writing in today’s Telegraph:
I had an insight, an omen, yesterday morning. I got up early to play tennis, at a municipal court. It is a lovely place, an oasis of green, in a densely populated area not far from London; and since I had failed to book I fully expected to be kicked off by 8am. Well, by 9am the courts were still deserted and we played blissfully on. It wasn’t until almost 10am – on one of the most glorious days of the year, a day when the whole of nature seems to shout that it’s time for tennis – that we were joined on the courts. A nice middle-aged couple turned up and began patting it to each other, and I thought, by heaven, what is wrong with us? Where is the get-up-and-go of our kids?
If this was Germany, they would have been out bagging the courts since dawn! Somewhere along the line the nation that invented or codified virtually every sport seems to have lost its lust for competitive games. I don’t want to exaggerate this. We did amazingly at the 2008 Olympics, and we have recently beaten Australia at rugby. But in our game, the world game, we should be doing so much better.
I am sure the problem is partly to do with all those foreign players in the Premiership, but it’s more fundamental than that. We are still paying the price of an educational establishment that developed an aversion to competitive games and an obsession with bureaucracy and elf and safety that made it hard for the voluntary sector to fill the gap.
I am sure you could find (or come up with) at least 100 more explanations for England’s regular World Cup failure.