Qualifications before reading: ITV did a show about why England shouldn’t win Euro 2012 called “Eurogeddon” I hope I am not retreading whatever Rufus Hound et al said. I didn’t watch it. I’ve read “Inverting the Pyramid” but don’t know much about football.
It was about 75 minutes into England’s quarter final match with Italy that I got a powerful feeling of nostalgia. When the game kicked off the sun had still been out, now it was nearing dark. I knew no one would score; that the game would burn through extra time and onto penalties and that England would lose. I am no football expert; I hadn’t entirely deduced that from the game itself, it was more like muscle memory or something like that. It was 1996, 1998, 2004 (I don’t remember 1990 and 2006 was played in the afternoon) all over again and I didn’t mind. Of course I, as everyone in the pub did, winced and groaned as the third and fourth penalties inevitably failed to find the back of the net. But it was fine, it had been fun, it was better than losing 4-1, it was better than not qualifying at all.
Losing is good for the soul. I’ve never subscribed to the winner takes all mentality of the post-Thatcher era, I found the servile celebrations of the Jubilee kind of gross. The England national team is good for England’s soul. It unites us. Well, maybe, half of us? A third of us? Those that care, those that notice anyway. 23 million suburban sitting rooms, millions more in pubs, all watching eleven men prove themselves to be not quite good enough. We aren’t the best. England is the not best nation in the world. We’re good but there’s nothing intrinsic that mean we should win. In a nation where it’s become accepted that the English premier league is “best league in the world”, when we have a Prime Minister from the landed gentry and still worship a royal family whose very rule is contingent on the good fortune of their birth, it’s good to be reminded that there other countries who can stake a claim to greatness. It’s good to have a team of humble underdogs who want to win but don’t act like they are entitled to. Or maybe I don’t quite understand sport.
Those that really care about football can have it almost all year round, they can follow their club’s travails, it won’t have always have the glamour and cash but it’ll be just as important. Those that hunger glory can follow Manchester United (United > England, they say), Arsenal, Chelsea, City: international sport franchises that happen to be based in England. In 1996 “Three Lions” painted the history of England national team not as a procession of glorious victories but a story of glorious moments and briefly raised hope; it’s a journey from that tackle by Moore to that backheel by Welbeck. It’s a good story though, it’s a story of underdogs, it’s a story probably not a million miles away from the stories of say Sweden or Portugal.
Long may the autopsy continue, the inquest can rage through the backpages a little longer till normal service is resumed and the fans can go back to the more pressing business of club football. The truth is no one really minds. 23 million will watch again in (fingers crossed) two years time, they’ll see a minor post-Imperial nation to do its best and come up agonisingly short. England is better off as a land of optimistic, open hope than a land of empty, bombastic, triumphalist, glory.