Matthew Norman on World Cup 2014: Oi, Hodgson, don’t beat yourself up

You of all people know this is not a national disaster, merely a slight, if predictable, disappointment

All his bags are packed and he’s ready to go, as the philosopher Denver expressed it, and soon Roy Hodgson will be leaving on a jet plane, not knowing in World Cup terms when he’ll be back again. This is, of course, arrant nonsense.

However prescient John Denver’s lyrics about his demise in a plane crash, they have limited application to an England football team that continues to have certain limitations of its own. A man far less clever than Hodgson, possibly even Glenn Hoddle, would know that he will not work at another World Cup as other than a television pundit (in which barren desert, God knows, we could use the oasis of his eloquence). He has rightly been spared for the 2016 European Championship, but barring a remarkable success there – and yes, I hear your sardonic harrumph at the notion – his dream of global glory is over.

Hodgson tells us he is devastated by this, though he need not have bothered. The quivery voice, bewildered eyes and sepulchral demeanour tell the tale of traumatised bereavement. The day before yesterday’s monumentally meaningless trial for the England reserves against Costa Rica, Frank Lampard Jnr performed the role expected of a senior squad member. Lamps trotted over to Hodgson on the training ground, it was reported, and very nearly reduced the gaffer to tears of gratitude with an empathetic pat on the shoulder.

In part because his England team was nothing like as useless as the Italy and Uruguay defeats have led some to believe, but more because Hodgson is such a civilised and engaging chap, this might be the moment to unveil a venerable sporting platitude in the quest for perspective. As Boris Becker laconically observed after losing his 1987 Wimbledon first-round match when defending champion, no one died.

This was not a national disaster. It only just makes the cut as a national disappointment. Far from letting his country down, as he evidently believes, Hodgson did him and his sovereign only credit by conducting himself, under pulverising stress, with the avuncular charm and 1960s detective inspector restraint that is his nostalgic hallmark.

 

With his appetite for high literature and gently left-leaning political outlook, he represents the very best of England – not as it is today, sadly, but as one fondly, if fancifully, recalls it from half a century ago, when personal wealth was no barrier to compassion for the deprived, and a lack of formal education no obstacle to curiosity about the world and the reading of difficult books. He is an oddly reassuring time warp from an age when 20 million people, very few of them All Souls fellows, rushed home to watch A J P Taylor’s history lectures, shown live on ITV before Crossroads; when the post-war consensus held that there was nothing despicably wet about caring for the poor; and when Bobby Moore’s commercial reward for lifting the Jules Rimet trophy was spearheading an advertising campaign for a pint and a game of arrows down the pub.

If I could, I would envelop him in a bear hug and whisper words of love – tough love, admittedly, the message being: Oi, Hodgson, man up and get over it! Instead, on the incalculably remote chance that he chances on these words while masochistically self-googling, I will ignore Andreas Whittam Smith’s brilliant analysis that the writing of an open letter is an act of madness to address him directly. Mr Hodgson, before you come home, reread one of your most treasured authors.

As a devotee of Stefan Zweig, Hodgson knows the details of the Austrian’s life, work and death better than I will bluff at knowing them myself, but the bare facts are these. Zweig, a Jew, fled Austria in 1934 as Hitler rose to power, settling after stints in London and New York in Petropolis in suburban Rio de Janeiro. There, in 1939, he published his only novel, Beware of Pity, the tale of an Austrian cavalry officer whose compassionate love for the crippled daughter of a friend leads him, with results more horrendous than England’s, to promise to make her well again.

It would trivialise a novel Hodgson cites among his most cherished to draw an analogy with the manager’s noble desire miraculously to cure the national football team of the neuroses that have crippled it these past 40 years. But it is a timely reminder to him that some achievements lie beyond the power of the kindliest motives; and that in the gruesome scheme of things, England’s failure to reach the last 16 is a novelty but not a calamity.

One appreciates his distress and excuses the hyperbole, but describing the state to which early elimination has condemned him as “a realm of despair” is out of character for such a reflective and cultivated man. “Realm of Despair” could have been the title of Zweig’s autobiography. In fact, he named it The World of Yesterday. He completed the memoir one February day in 1942. The next, anguished beyond endurance by the rise of Nazism, and bereft of any hope for humanity’s future, he was found dead, hand in hand with his wife, from an overdose of barbiturates.

Should the travel arrangements permit, perhaps Hodgson will find time before leaving Brazil on a jet plane to visit the Zweig home, now a museum, and reacquaint himself with what constitutes a realm of despair. He is too rounded and impressive a figure not to beware of self-pity by mistaking a couple of clumsy defensive errors for a personal, much less a national, tragedy. Bill Shankly’s aperçu about football being much more important than a matter of life and death, though droll enough when he made it, retroactively acquired the flavour of obscene glibness after Hillsborough. That was a national tragedy, and what drove the Zweigs to their suicide pact an unparalleled global cataclysm. Hodgson demeans himself, his literary tastes and a beloved author by raiding the lexicon of the red-top melodramatist to conflate a predictable reverse with an existential crisis.

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