In a humiliation widely regarded as unprecedented, England have fallen in the 2016 European Championships to Iceland, a country, it was stressed in the build-up, with a population the size of Leicester. True, if the story of last season in the Premiership taught us anything, it was to entertain a wholly new respect for things the size of Leicester. But even so. Iceland! Land of the puffin!
And so the post-mortem begins. It had already begun, in fact. In comments that set a new record for impatience in this area, Raheem Sterling of Manchester City was irrecoverably monstered for various inefficiencies on the right-hand side in England’s opening (and drawn) game. Roy Hodgson, the manager, resigned minutes after the Iceland defeat, reading a statement apparently written in the dressing room between the final whistle and the press conference. With that kind of flair for a deadline, he should obviously now go into sports journalism. But Hodgson’s future was a keynote in the debate even before the group stages were completed. A headline in the Sunday Times, as England entered the knockout phase, facing a highly winnable tie, read: “Hodgson: I won’t beg for my job”. With England, you have to be ready to get your post-mortems in earlier and earlier.
There has been a shift, though. Typically over the past half-century, England would fly in to an international tournament (assuming they’d qualified for it) in a media-supported horn-blare of expectation and entitlement, most of it patently unreasonable. The team’s subsequent failure to match those implausible expectations would then duly sponsor a long period of anguished wailing and dark recrimination. Things have calmed down, however. Of late, thankfully, a more modest understanding of England’s place in the global framework has taken hold. Now the team arrives helpfully cushioned by carefully managed expectations. And then, when they don’t win the tournament, the anguished wailing and dark recriminations start.
Such was the way in 2014 when the most downplayed England team in history went into a tough World Cup group in Brazil and, as widely predicted, didn’t emerge. The consequent flagellation lasted months – simply segued into this new one, really. England has been experimenting with modesty but the lesson of France, surely, is that the experiment has failed. English football doesn’t do modesty – from the overfunded swank of the FA’s hand-picked training and troughing headquarters in Chantilly, down to the aggressive occupation of foreign town squares by its supporters.
On that subject, it was more poignant than usual to reflect on the geographical affiliations declared on the flags at the England end in Nice on Monday night. Harpenden, Bletchley, Lincoln, Burton. Manchester? Newcastle? London? The big metropolises? Not so much. Hard not to catch an eerie echo of the referendum vote map laid out in that carpet of modified bedsheets. Perhaps those England fans actually meant it when they stood on their chairs and sang to their hosts in Marseilles, “F*** off, Europe – we’re voting to leave.” In the international tournaments, the discontented and the overlooked are heard. They take their game back.
I only wish I cared a bit more. I’ve tried, I’ve strained, but it won’t come. The fate of the English national football team doesn’t engage me – except as black comedy, of course, where it’s irresistible. I’m a fully paid-up, card-carrying Chelsea fan and it seems to create barriers at these big summer events. Support a team with five Tottenham players in it? I have too much invested emotionally, year-round, in the notion of Harry Kane not prospering on a football pitch to make the necessary leap, even though it’s June and we’re supposed to be on holiday. I’m not pretending this does me credit. But I can’t deny it.
Giles Smith writes for the Times
Hunter Davies returns in September
This article appears in the 29 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies