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The Media Maelstrom
Some football executives say the ferocious British press bears some of the blame for the team's frailties. Club executives complain that it's relentless and abusive. Players and their wives and girlfriends are pursued relentlessly for sensationalist headline fodder. (And all too often they deliver.) As a result, England's FA is reactive and short-term.
As an American, I am more than familiar with a less-than-elite national soccer team. U.S. fans are just learning to throw themselves into the game, but they can ill afford the arrogance that accompanies, say, USA Basketball. But even the basketball Yanks have acknowledged that the world has caught up with America's game and have adjusted accordingly. England's supporters are never willing to admit the trophy isn't within their reach. "This time, as always, we're optimistic and go in believing that we're champions," says Mark Chappell of Rotherham, who often travels to watch England play.
In the post-hooligan era, the faith of England's supporters is, at the very least, entertaining. Take the past World Cup, when England and the U.S. were drawn in the same group. The scene outside Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa, on June 12, 2010, was a bit of Monty Python meets the third world. Beyond the paved road that ringed the modern stadium stood a tin-shacked, dirt-laned township. And tromping through it that afternoon, raising clouds of clay dust, was a steady stream of England supporters clad in faux chain mail, St. George's cross shirts and crusader helmets, seeking to invade the few makeshift pubs set up in the neighborhood. They politely plundered the pubs, draining them dry, then moved on to the stadium fully expecting their team to dispatch their former colony. England had come to conquer, because that's what England does.
On the pitch, though, another farce ensued. After gaining a quick 1-0 lead over the middling Yanks, England goalkeeper Robert Green fielded Clint Dempsey's excuse-me shot like it was a loose chicken, practically shooing the ball into his own net. Gasp. England's supporters tried to rally the team, cranking up the volume on "God Save the Queen" and chanting, "Come on, England," easily drowning out the traveling Yanks, but the game ended in a draw. England's fans were again left speechless, my English press colleagues appalled, as if they had just drawn with a minnow like, say, Algeria. Oh, they did that too, in the next game.
Drawing with the U.S. and then being blown away by Germany in the next round was bad enough, but I had already witnessed much worse. In Euro 2004, the disappointment was epic when a David Beckham-led team fell to host Portugal on penalties after a referee's controversial decision disallowed a potentially winning goal. From my perch in TIME's London bureau that summer, I followed the incredible media buildup for "our lads" and squeezed into the pubs the high church of English football with the rest of the believers. And England had a decent side. But there was Becks, hoofing a penalty kick over the bar, and Darius Vassell's subsequent miss from the spot a punch in the national midsection. I have never heard the words "I'm completely gutted" spoken so often.
The feeling doesn't last long, and England's supporters are more than good-natured about it. Self-mockery can be as soothing as it is amusing. Come the next big tournament, they are ready to be disappointed again. Warren Barton, a former England international now working for Fox Sports in the U.S., has seen it before. "They live on the edge of hope and expectation," he says. "We have that arrogance that we can compete."
Perhaps supporters should take a cue from Italy's coach, Cesare Prandelli, who has already hinted loudly that maybe his team isn't ready to win Euro 2012. That's really setting the bar low. But you will not hear this from England's Hodgson; the press would crucify him. In the aftermath of the coaching calamity that followed England's qualification, though, the new reality may be casting its own spell. "It's quite refreshing," says Barton. "There's been so much hype and expectation, you can suffocate. Now it's just, Let them be themselves." The thinking is that ol' Roy will just let the boys have a go, and maybe England will surprise. The data suggest otherwise, says Markovits: "Empirically speaking, since '66, zero."
To Markovits, the more interesting question pertaining to British exceptionalism isn't about the nation's unfulfilled footballing aspirations. It goes back to a time long before football became important. "The real story is, How did this little nothing conquer a fourth of the world?" he asks. Maybe because the English believed so fervently, as do their football supporters, that they could.
Forget history. It will take just two England wins in Euro 2012 and the delusion machine will be cranking again.