Come on England? I don't think so

Football's still our national sport, but when did we fall out of love with our national team? John Crace on the death of the affair
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The Independent Online

Did you care that England beat Montenegro on Friday night? Obviously not if you're Scottish, Welsh or Irish. But if you're English, did you care? Not just in a "I wasn't that bothered but on balance I'd rather they won than lost" sort of way – but really cared? I thought not. And however much you did care, I'd put money on you caring a great deal more about your own club's result the previous weekend.

Now take yesterday's rugby. Ireland versus Wales and England against France. Both matches played with a passion shared by even those of us who don't normally take much interest in the game. OK, so both games were World Cup quarter-finals, but I feel almost the same intensity for the Six Nations championship. I couldn't tell you what club teams are in the rugby Premiership, nor do I have any intention of finding out. But put me in front of an England international and the blood starts racing. The same goes for Test cricket. County games are a snooze for everyone except the diehard fan, but an Ashes series never fails to capture my imagination.

Nor do I think I'm unusual in any of this. So when did international football become so profoundly dull, an unwelcome break in the club league fixture list? It wasn't always like this. Back in 1966 and 1970 there was a genuine sense of country first and club second that was shared by fans, players and managers. There was a football national interest. Maybe it was a jingoistic hangover from the war, but it was there nonetheless. Yet – the odd game against Germany excepted – it has long since gone. Why?

It doesn't help that the England football team has had almost nothing to celebrate since 1966. The English rugby and cricket teams may have had their iffy spells but the rugby team has won the World Cup and a Grand Slam within the past 10 years while the cricketers won three Ashes series and is are sitting pretty on top of the ICC world rankings. But the football team? One World Cup semi-final in 1990, and we only managed that by avoiding the good teams and playing Belgium and Cameroon in the earlier knock-out stages. Otherwise, it's been a litany of last 16 or quarter-final exits to a soundtrack of disbelief in media that have consistently tipped them as pre-tournament favourites. Though quite why is unclear given that any sane person would have ranked England somewhere between fifth and 16th in the world , so the team has only ever performed to its potential.

What is it about putting on an England shirt that turns a normally fairly useful footballer into a tentative incompetent? Isn't it supposed to be the other way round? Isn't playing for England meant to inspire? But when was the last time you saw a player who looked genuinely thrilled to be playing for England? There may be an initial giddy moment at being selected for the national team, but judging by the players' reactions it's not long before it becomes a bit of a chore. Come the international friendly matches, there's usually a massive queue of players – more often than not encouraged by their club managers – looking for an excuse to withdraw from the squad. If the players feel so detached from international football, who can blame the fans for feeling the same way?

When I look at the England side these days, I find myself hoping not to find any Spurs players included it. That way I can be sure they won't get injured and will be fresh for the next club fixture. There is no pride. Just pragmatism. A pragmatism born of the growing sense of alienation between fans and players. Where once the players might have remained loyal to a club for many years with roots in the local community, there is now no pretence that they are anything other than mercenaries – boots for hire with a £75,000-plus per week lifestyle that the rest of us can't begin to imagine – who are merely on short-term contracts to deliver. And the bottom line is that their paymasters are you and me, the season ticket holders. So if the players are taking such a hard-nosed monetary line with their careers, so too will I. Far better for Scott Parker to play a blinder for Spurs than for England.

Yet it's not just the Premier League's financial excess that has distorted the image of international football. Twenty years ago it was possible to maintain the fiction that English footballers were among the greatest players in the world. That collective self-delusion is no longer sustainable. The Premier League is now full of many of the best players and it's all too clear the English don't make up many of them. Arsenal fielded a team with precisely no English players not so long ago and several of the current England players struggle to get a regular place in their club's starting XI.

Which brings us on nicely to the quality of football. Put simply, even the most unprepossessing of Premier League fixtures – Sunderland versus West Brom, say – is guaranteed to be a lot more entertaining than any game in which England are playing. The football will be faster, more thoughtful and usually of a higher standard. Or to put it another way, if England were a Premier League side, you wouldn't put money on them avoiding relegation. But even if England had a team of world-beaters, they would be a hard sell because there is such a sense of joylessness about them. By all accounts the Manchester United and Liverpool players barely speak to one another in the team hotel.

I need football to provide a narrative for my own life, and that can only come through the regularity of club games. I need the weekly sense of emotional engagement, of relating to an entity that isn't in a relationship with me. It's an attachment that spreads well beyond sport. I need Spurs to win so that I can appropriate their triumphs for myself and I need them to lose so that I don't have to. I would guess that most fans need their own clubs for much the same reasons.

John Crace is a Guardian writer and author of 'Vertigo: One Football Fan's Fear of Success' (Constable £12.99). John Crace and Jim Crace will be talking about literature and football at the Cheltenham Festival this Thursday

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