In Jonathan Northcroft’s article in this week’s issue of The Sunday Times, he places this current England team amongst the 6 worst England XI’s ever. After watching yet another insipid (a word that seems to only ever be used in a sporting context) performance from England, labouring to a 1-1 against Poland that was barely deserved, it is hard to argue against him, and once again the English National football team has come under severe criticism from fans and pundits alike. This is in no way unusual. To be honest, the English football team has come under abuse about for as long as I can remember. Born too late to appreciate the semi-final success of Euro 96, I feel as though the only times I have heard the English public talk about its national team with pride was when we beat Germany 5-1 and in the run ups to Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. Since going out to Portugal on penalties on July 1st 2006, I have read countless articles, had many conversations and heard so much moaning about the failures, disappointments and incompetence of those perceived to be the best footballers our country can produce.
But is our national team really worthy of such denigration? Much has been made of the ludicrousy of our position on the FIFA World Rankings list; we are currently 5th, although were as high as 3rd after Euro 2012. I have even heard this England team labelled as the most hated of all time, what with the racist allegations against John Terry, the promiscuity of Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney attacking the fans after boos against Algeria in 2010 and the general antipathy aimed towards the likes of Jermain Defoe, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville and Sol Campbell amongst others (the final point deriving more from excessive club loyalty rather than the unethical actions of the players, despite some antagonistic activity from those named such as Defoe biting Mascherano and Neville goading Liverpool fans). In amidst all this hatred and derision, the fact that we actually have a better record in major tournaments, qualifying campaigns and friendlies than almost every other country goes somewhat ignored.
Before I go any further, please don’t think I am naïve. I am not suggesting this England team are World Cup winners, that our football is majestic or that we should overhype the team. We are currently far inferior to Spain, Germany, Argentina, Brazil and Belgium to name a few, our display against Poland was listless and we should remain realistic of our chances in major campaigns. However, I am saying we should not chastise the team so much that we expect, almost relish, failure. Since 1996, we have participated in 7 major tournaments. In that time, we have finished in the quarter finals 4 times, and in the Round of 16 twice. Not a record to write home about, but not appalling. Moreover, look at how we went out, and who we went out to:
1998 – Argentina (penalties)
2000 – Group stage
2002 – Brazil (winners)
2004 – Portugal (penalties) (runners up)
2006 – Portugal (penalties)
2008 – awkward…
2010 – Germany (3rd)
2012 – Italy (penalties) (runners up)
Barring Euro 2000 and the 2010 World Cup, we went out to the 1st or 2nd best team in the tournament and four times by penalty shootout, which are more a lottery than based on ability. Admittedly, it is foolish to blame bad luck on our exits – after all, every team that’s ever left a tournament can do that – yet a little acknowledgment of this record might be factored into any comment on our international tournament failings. This is not even mentioning our qualifying record, where we have topped the group on every occasion since 2000 (excluding Steve McClaren’s pathetic reign) despite playing worthy opponents such as Germany, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, Poland, Croatia and Ukraine. Why, then, do we vilify the team so much?
Well, I believe it’s because we’re ‘paying our dues’ for expecting too much of the team in the past. We have always expected a lot from our national team, retaining very high expectations that are largely unjustified. In previous campaigns, we have been very vocal about these expectations. From 2002 to 2006, England were always considered, by its own fans at least, as a potential tournament winner. Therefore, our exits embarrassed us – more because of what we said beforehand than actual on-pitch shortcomings. I believe we, the proud English public, felt self-conscious at the thought of the rest of the world laughing at us for supporting our national team so fervently and misguidedly. Furthermore, we’re still feeling that self-consciousness, thus we adopt a pessimistic attitude towards the team – enabling us to join the rest of the world in laughing at England’s mediocrity.
Returning to the England-Poland game as an example, I couldn’t help notice how critical of England the commentary was. Misplaced passes and lapses in defensive concentration were highlighted and the solid defensive work that ensured Poland fluffed all their chances went unregistered. Nor did it mention anything negative about Poland’s play, how they wasted opportunities our ‘sloppy passing’ offered. It was never acknowledged that England were the away team in a passionate stadium with a wet surface; conditions which, in the Premier League, would give any team reason to implement a defensive approach. In the qualifying game against Ukraine, I came away thinking that we actually played fairly well and that Ukraine were fortunate to get a 1-1 draw. The statistics say we shared equal amounts of possession but that England had 14 shots to Ukraine’s 8, including a debatably-legitimate goal ruled out and several excellent chances wasted. Thinking about it, our performance was not dissimilar to Poland’s against us – good play, great chances wasted and the same end result – yet where Poland were praised, the injury hit England were lambasted. In the Premier League, it is often said that the best teams are able to pick up points without playing well, yet for the international team this statement seems to be forgotten.
As I said earlier, I know this England team are not world beaters and I know a lot of people will disagree with what I say in this article. Nonetheless, we contain many top players and have a good crop of youngsters coming through. Perhaps it’s time to find the support level between hysteria and pessimism – something similar to ‘we want England to do well, but any good results against the top sides are unlikely’. And just remember, every great international side has had its failures. Spain were the perennial underachievers as recently as 2006, now they’re regarded as one of the best international sides ever. And even in their case, the Spanish team received its fair share of criticism at Euro 2012 (and the 2010 World Cup) for dull, negative football and very nearly went out to Portugal in the Semi-finals, so even the most successful International team ever has its critics. It may not happen to England, but as supporters, we should be supporting our players when they lose, not criticising them at every possible moment.