At Euro 16, the England football team once again found a creative way to get eliminated from a major footballing tournament. England were knocked out by Iceland, a country with a comparatively negligible footballing tradition and a population compared by the media to that of English towns like Croydon or, suitably enough, Leicester. The Iceland team’s football and team spirit, and the enthusiasm of their fans, have been some of the highlights of the competition, in obvious contrast to the depressing style of England’s play and the even more depressing conduct of many of their supporters in France.
Of course, the English, and particularly English football fans, have a knack for making everyone else hate them, and so the team’s elimination by Iceland was greeted by hilarity and glee across the world. Many of the more cultured England fans themselves seem to have found the funny side of it as well, and the travails of the national team are increasingly viewed with a kind of wry fatalism by many English football followers. But for the most part, travelling English football supporters remain synonymous with hooliganism and the kind of toxic nationalism and xenophobia that results in their main football songs being about bombing Germany in WW2 and ‘No surrender to the IRA’.
For all the hand-wringing in the media and on the TV over the pitched battles involving England fans in Marseilles ahead of their game with Russia, the media paid scant attention to this aspect of England’s footballing culture. Indeed, the revelations about the role of Russian hooligans in provoking fights with the English fans and French police was a welcome distraction for many who prefer to gloss over the endemic racism in English football, which is typified by the aforementioned songs about Germans and the IRA. Considering the behaviour of their fans, is it any wonder that so many of England’s players–many of whom are black–underperform and find it hard at times to muster the famous ‘passion’ so beloved of England’s moronic football pundits?
The fact is that English nationalism, not least due to England’s historic relationship with Wales, Scotland and Ireland, is a particularly and virulently toxic ideology which tends to define itself against large swathes of the population of its ‘own’ country. In this it is at odds with many other forms of bourgeois nationalism, which tend to have at least some theoretical pretense of being inclusive and progressive, like France. Moreover, as recent political events have revealed, British society is deeply polarized even by its own unflattering historical standards, and there is not much in the way of unitary or unifying ideas for disparate parts of the population to rally around. That’s why, in contrast to small countries like Wales or Iceland, or a country like France, there is no well of national or collective pride for the English players to draw on; why they so often look less than the sum of their often talented parts.
The other major problem for English football is the ludicrous celebrity culture which promotes one or two players at any one time–normally but not necessarily the captain–into some kind of demigod status. We’ve seen it before with the likes of Beckham, then with Lampard and Gerrard, and now we get to witness it with Wayne Rooney. Rooney is a polarizing figure at best among British football fans in general, loved by Manchester United fans and hated by pretty much everyone else. He has always been a talented player but his rambunctious and ‘physical’ style of play does not lend itself well to a corpulent body which finds itself the wrong side of thirty. This is the main reason his effectiveness as a striker is not what it was, and it is what triggered his move from the forward line to midfield.
In the minds of many commentators and presumably in his own, Rooney the midfielder is a sort of visionary English equivalent to Andrea Pirlo, with unparalleled footballing vision and eye for a pass. Problem is, Rooney is not as good a passer as Pirlo, and certainly not as good a reader of the game. That was never his strength. But his tyrannical status as England captain means he is undroppable; and so the entire England formation was re-designed to accommodate Rooney as its creative fulcrum. This meant playing others out of position, or not playing someone like Jamie Vardy at all. On the basis of footballing merit, Rooney would have been much better used as an impact sub coming on for the last 20 minutes of a game. As it was, despite playing the majority of England’s four games at the competition, Rooney finished with no assists and a single goal (a penalty against Iceland). Against Iceland he created one chance, a sideways pass that led to a shot some 30 meters from goal; while in the entire game he only made one completed pass into Iceland’s penalty area, which was from a cross. The English Pirlo indeed. In contrast, the much-derided Jack Wilshere, who only played half the game, actually created two chances with forward passes into the 18 yard box. But don’t expect any English pundits to tell you that. (Stats from squawka.com).
Of course, it was inevitable that manager Roy Hodgson would bear the brunt of the blame for England’s failure, and some of it was deserved. But listening to the self-righteous anger of former England striker Alan Shearer on Match of the Day after the game was sickening. He spent most of the time lambasting Wilshere, who spent the entire season before the tournament injured and wasn’t even a starter during the tournament, as well as of course laying into Hodgson. Shearer slammed pretty much every player on the pitch… with the exception of Rooney, the creative maestro around whom the entire team had been built, but who hadn’t created one chance of note in the whole game. Shearer said then that he wanted the England job, and I wished the FA would give it to him. Because you can rest assured, that with this mentality, they are only guaranteeing future England football failures, and next time it would be Shearer being ridiculed–a man far more deserving of it than Roy Hodgson.