Monday, June 26, 2006

More torture please, we're English

Given that following England's adventures in the World Cup is currently my (and the nation's) chief preoccupation, TofE has been strangely silent on the matter.

The reason is simple: it's hard to write about something so painful. So I'll let Robert Crampton in The Times do it for me...

...There are few experiences, surely, as worrisome as watching England play competitive football. Never mind anxious, it’s agony. We’ve had a fortnight now of utter misery with, one hopes, another fortnight of utter misery still to go. I sit chewing my nails, silent, brooding, watchful for whatever is about to go wrong, occasionally furious, very seldom happy. It’s exquisite.

I say a fortnight, more like as long as I can remember, back to the age of nine and the Poles at Wembley in 1973. Crunch qualifiers, gritty groups, knuckle-eating knockouts: dozens, scores, hundreds of games, every one spent win, lose or draw in abject gut-churning displeasure, writhing on a sofa or a stool somewhere, watching the pictures coming in from Spain, Mexico, Italy, France, Japan, the decades passing, pleas and curses and vitriol muttered to brother or father, wife or child, God or barman. Nausea beforehand, emptiness afterwards, because either they’re out or they’re not, and you can’t wait to be sitting suffering again.

For many of us, there are two World Cups going on in Germany. One involves watching England, the other involves watching teams we don’t care about. This second World Cup is great fun. Germany-Poland last week, for instance: a bunch of us watched it together, making fun of mistakes, names and hairstyles, cheering the plucky Poles, keen for the Germans to lose, but then, when the inevitable winner came, experiencing it as a momentary disappointment rather than a bayonet to the belly.

The actual personnel that makes up the players and the management of the England football team at any one time seems to be irrelevant: there's something deep in the national psyche that means England will always play incredibly badly (but not quite badly enough to lose) against weak teams, and then incredibly well (but not quite well enough to win) against great teams.

Nothing different this year. Without doubt this is the most talented generation of footballers that England has produced since 1966, but do they sweep past the likes of Ecuador, Paraguay and Trinidad in the riot of joyous free-flowing football that each member regularly produces for his club?

They do not.

They sweat, toil and struggle in the sun, cursed with self-consciousness and weighed down with the hope and expectation of a super-critical yet hopelessly optimistic nation, doing just enough to scrape agonisingly through each round, always on the brink of national humiliation and disaster, frightened witless by each minnow, making Himalayan mountains of every molehill until, with tedious predictability, they come up against Brazil or Argentina, and then, freed from the burden of being 'favourites', they suddenly produce a performance of sustained brilliance and bravery that ends, inevitably, in desperate ill luck and glorious failure.

Watching England is mass masochism - but would we have it any other way?


Duck said...

Wow! This captures what it has been like growing up as a Boston Red Sox fan. You can deal with a perenially bad team, it is the good team that steals defeat out of the jaws of victory on a regular basis that truly drives one insane.

Well, thanks to the Red Sox victory in the World Series of '04 my lifetime of unrequited love for them was finally satisfied. Football season is ahead, and the Minnesota Vikings are the Boston Red Sox of football. Four Super Bowl visits, no championship.

If the anxiety proves too much, you can tune in to watch the rains spashing down on the courts at Wimbledon.

Brit said...

From what I understand about the history of the Red Sox, it is very similar.

But imagine also that everybody in the USA is a fanatical Red Sox fan, and every game has national pride at stake, and instead of rivals like the Yankees, you're playing against ancient military foes, opposing whom is in the very foundations of your national psyche. That will give you some idea of the anxiety involved.


We have similar agonies at Wimbledon, albeit on a lesser scale. About 10 years ago, after decades of nothing even resembling a tennis talent, we got Tim Henman.

Now Tim Henman plays exactly like the England football team: scrapes through in 5 sets against players ranked many hundreds of places below him, then plays brilliantly against the top seeds, only to heroically fail at the semi-final stage.

Alas, poor Tim. At least our footballers share the burden of the nation's hope and dread. Henman has had to carry it all himself. He is currently passing the torch to a young Scot, Andy Murray. God help him.