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England no longer a national joke

Euro 2012 has seen a return to old values after years of chronic failure

Win or lose here in the Olympic stadium tonight, England may just have achieved a rite of passage these last few weeks. They may have taken some significant strides away from a culture of both chronic failure and astounding self-indulgence. If this sounds harsh you must have forgotten the worst of the breakdowns at major tournaments, been lulled into a critical coma by all the wry jokes about England and penalty shoot-outs that followed the first failure in Turin in 1990 to nail a not particularly awesome version of Germany in a World Cup semi-final.

You must also have been less than appalled when Gareth Southgate, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle made a TV pizza ad in the wake of a second inability to see off the Germans in another semi-final, at Wembley in Euro '96.

It all started to go wrong 26 years earlier on a broiling day in Leon, Mexico, when Sir Alf Ramsey, who had produced a superbly single-minded team to win the 1966 World Cup and four years later had an arguably stronger squad to defend it, made the most significant miscalculation of his career. With England in command of the West German team of Franz Beckenbauer, Ramsey withdrew the string-pulling Bobby Charlton to rest him for what looked an inevitable semi-final.

That, and a few traumatic minutes for Peter Bonetti, replacing a sick Gordon Banks, ended a challenge of immense promise. Of course Ramsey didn't do a pizza ad – he would have sooner been immersed in a vat of boiling oil. He just admitted to Charlton on the flight home that he had made a mistake. It is, you have to say, a tradition of responsibility that has somewhat dwindled down the years.

When Paul Gascoigne scored a brilliant goal against Scotland in Euro '96 his reaction was to sprawl on his back and mimic the "dental chair" drinking orgy in a Hong Kong nightclub that had so clouded England's build-up to the tournament.

A few days later he missed by an inch the cross which might have seen off Germany. The dental chair routine was forgotten, of course. There were just a few more of the tears he had shed back in Turin when he picked up the gratuitous yellow card that would have kept him out of the final if England hadn't bungled the shoot-out. It was, it seemed, just another of so many easily disposable regrets.

They have piled themselves into a national joke – but how hard have we asked the question: why us? Why do we lag so far behind the world's front-rank nations such as Brazil, Germany, Spain and today's opponents, Italy? Is it that something has crumbled in the English football psyche?

Certainly we are not bad at making excuses. In the Azteca stadium in 1986 Maradona's hand of the deity was also England's godsend. How much easier to rail against his brutal cynicism than the fact that he had also turned the English defence into matchwood with one of the greatest goals in the history of the game.

In 2002, David Beckham arrived in Japan in the first flush of his global celebrity, a status hugely buoyed by the spectacular free-kick at Old Trafford against Greece that rescued England's faltering qualification campaign. That kick will no doubt be celebrated long after it is forgotten that he jumped a mile out of a tackle at the start of the move that saw Brazil equalise on a day of burning heat in Shizuoka.

Michael Owen had given England the lead over a Brazilian team who were maybe the weakest to ever win a World Cup – if England had taken hold of their early advantage, only Turkey and a Germany who had been beaten 5-1 in Munich stood in the way of England's second World Cup.

Four years later in Germany, when Wayne Rooney was sent off in the quarter-final against Portugal after stamping on Ricardo Carvalho, and Cristiano Ronaldo gave his knowing little wink to his bench, we thought we had seen the nadir with the grotesque Wags circus in Baden-Baden, the climactic indulgence of the years of Sven Goran Eriksson, and then there was the sight of a tearful Beckham returning, unbidden, the captain's armband.

In South Africa it could not have been worse in the wretched performance and the sullen demeanour from start to finish that was captured best by Rooney's dismissive, foully expressed criticism of the fans who complained in Cape Town about possibly the most dispiriting performance ever produced by an England team. In all honesty it is not much of a competitive tradition Roy Hodgson's England have to defend tonight, especially when you make the most casual examination of the one owned by their opponents.

England face their most severe challenge of the tournament but can take considerable heart from the leadership of Steven Gerrard and the gutsy performances of Joe Hart and John Terry. England, under Hodgson, are looking like a team ready to go their limits with nerve and honesty. This hasn't always been the case. The new manager has made England combative and respectable again. He has done it to the point where we may just be able to say: "Hold the pizza".