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English Football and the Culture of Overreaction

An English lion, distored by a magnifying glass.Two feet: that’s what finished England. Had Scott Carson been standing two feet to his left when Mladen Petrić tried that impertinent 25-yard shot, he would have stopped it, and England would almost certainly have held on for the draw that would have taken them to the European Championship. It wouldn’t have been a strange or tactically unsound or improbable decision from Carson; he simply would have had to hedge his bets, as Croatia advanced the ball, by moving in slightly to protect the goalmouth, rather than committing, as he did, to the near post. It might have been eighteen inches. As bumbling as England looked, as inadequately as they understood their scheme, as depleted as they were by injury, they were one medium-sized goalkeeper’s step to the left from getting through. Croatia, a team filled with players from Serie A, the Premier League, and the Bundesliga, playing at their absolute best, with no injuries, no pressure, and an impeccable gameplan, caught England on the night of their worst performance in living memory and England came two feet away from holding them to a draw.

I would like to suggest, with all possible gentleness, that it might be going a bit too far on the evidence to say that Croatia were “far superior in technical ability, skill and commitment to the insipid and inept England team”, or to call the English players “over-paid, over-pampered, and over-hyped English prima donnas” who “disgraced the England shirt”. A bit too far for anyone; but particularly for an elected official, and even more particularly for an elected official expressing these sentiments in a motion submitted before Parliament. For someone like that, these comments might look like the cheapest sort of rabble-rousing, but that didn’t stop Roger Godsiff, MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath, who introduced his early-day motion castigating the England team and praising Croatia and Russia the morning after England failed to qualify.

Welcome to England, where the middle ground between being a hero and being a disgrace is a stretch of precisely two feet. In the four days since the Croatia match, I have read countless stories about “spineless, pathetic, rubbish England”, the “joke of Europe” (the Sun); about past failures being “sluiced down the archives of history last night by a humiliation so abject that it defies reason, let alone excuse” (the Daily Mail); about “the end of the dream…the end of England as a genuine world force” (the Mirror). I have heard Premier League fans boo every touch of the ball by an England player, unless of course he happened to play for their club. I have seen television analysts furiously blame a loss inflicted on men in their 20s and 30s on the laziness of children under 10. I have read not one but two arguments, both by normally sensible writers, stipulating that the Premier League should be torn off from the FA, that Premier League players should be barred from the England team, and that the England team would be better off if it were made up entirely of lower-league footballers.

England looked terrible on Wednesday night. I’m not pretending otherwise. But what makes this deluge of shame and hostility so hard to take is that none of it would be happening if Scott Carson had slid two feet to his left in the moment before Petrić shot. Had he done so, we’d be hearing only about the greatness of David Beckham, the dauntlessness of Peter Crouch, and the “fighting spirit” that England displayed in clawing back from a two-goal deficit. Everyone would be eagerly assessing England’s chances in Euro 2008. They’ll have to improve on that first half, everyone would say, and McClaren may still be a muppet, but with Rooney and Owen back, and the defenders healthy, and a fit David Beckham, who knows…

I would like to suggest, with the delicacy of a single feather falling on a perfectly still lake, that commentary surrounding the England football team has lapsed into a state of permanent overreaction. Whatever happens, good or bad, with the team, the ensuing discussion not only quickly becomes exaggerated, but begins in a state of exaggeration, as though the tabloid culture has held sway for so long that it’s taught everyone to skip all the steps between calm assessment and screaming simplified frenzy. And this happens so automatically, and is so universally taken for granted, that England games seem less like football matches these days than like occasions for the nation to release its pent-up feelings. And watching from abroad, you start to wonder whether anyone remembers that those intermediate steps exist.

One of the hallmarks of the culture of permanent overreaction is that it erases the distinction between athletics and morality. Success is taken for virtue, failure is treated as a sign of decadence and corruption. It’s never simply that the other players were better on the day. When England do well, it’s because of some strength in the national self-image (fortitude, tenacity, et. al.) which they have been able to express; when they fail, it is always, always, because they’re pampered and overpaid. Being overpaid opens, in critiques of the players, onto all sorts of concrete vices (they’re spoiled, they’re soft, they’re selfish, not like the players of yesterday), but the relentless focus on the size of their salaries seldom makes anyone wonder about the depths of class resentment that the fans seem to hold in reserve for players whom they’re simultaneously desperate to idolize. And it seldom makes anyone ask whether there’s actually a measurable correlation between the players’ income and the national team’s success. In fact, the Italian team that won the World Cup was not exactly made up of paupers. And failure sometimes has more to do with injury and a faulty gameplan than it does with the greed that festers in the depths of a player’s soul.

England were woeful on Wednesday night; I’ve written as much, and I know it. But they were woeful for a few specific reasons, not because of some all-consuming rot that’s ruined the English game. Their manager was not up to the task, consistently bungled player selection and tactics, made some of his worst gaffes against Croatia, and has been fired. Fully half their first-team players were injured, and will heal. And even accounting for those weaknesses, the performance England turned in was far below their usual level; it was an aberration, not a norm. And even under these aberrant conditions, the team were almost good enough to succeed.

I would like to suggest, with the lightness of one snowflake landing faintly on a field, that the culture of permanent overreaction, through the distorting effect that it has on the fans’ relationship with the players and on the players’ sense of their jobs, is as much to blame as anything for England’s recent underperformance. And if that’s true, it means that the current slash-and-burn approach to determining the next steps to take with the team, the current sense that anything that can be described negatively must therefore really be bad, will hurt the future more than they will help. The team could certainly use, and will likely obtain, a better and more tactically intelligent manager; the FA could stand to be operated more transparently, and with greater accountability, which will require more targeted fan pressure before it comes to pass; and the youth system could stand to be improved (although the under-21 team is excellent). But there are limits to what needs to be changed, and recognizing those limits is as important as making the changes. England are a really good team, with some of the world’s best players, and they have been mismanaged. Whatever the media, bloggers, bereaved fans, or forum posters would have you believe, their character, insofar as it can be divined from a football match, was stronger than their gameplan on Wednesday night. Nothing worked, but they never gave up. And they would have made it through, despite everything, had it not been for those two feet.

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English Football and the Culture of Overreaction

by Brian Phillips · November 25, 2007

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