There have been so many dismal scenes in the recent history of English football that it is difficult to pick one definitive low water-mark.
Did it come in 1992, with the Turnipification of Graham Taylor, and if it did, was the worst moment the decisive defeat to the Netherlands, or the goal scored after 8.3 seconds of the next match by a Sammarinese computer salesman? Was Kevin Keegan the custodian of our darkest hour, standing mutely on the touchline as a late Romanian penalty consigned us to elimination in the group stages of the Euro 2000? Or was it in 2007, when Steve McClaren cowered under his umbrella as his charges meekly surrendered even a place in another European Championship?
Each of these memories induces a special wince of its own. But for deep psychological impact – and bear with me, football haters, because this does eventually move past people kicking a ball about – it’s hard to see past 2010, and England’s World Cup elimination at the hands of Germany by the convincing margin of four goals to one. The scoreline was wholly justified, the team indisputably humbled; the only blessing was that it meant a tournament full of disappointments would not go on any longer. It wasn’t, perhaps, the most abject single moment. But for me, and I suspect for many other England supporters, it was the last straw, the last step in a cumulative humiliation that brought with it a reluctant, and yet irresistible, realisation: we just aren’t all that good at football.
To which the disinterested observer’s response might be: how did you not get that already? The only remarkable thing about this account of the recent English game is that it hadn’t already extinguished hope years before, most particularly in 2006, when our “Golden Generation” played poorly yet again but continued to be credited with almost magical footballing powers. Another way to see that history, after all, is not as a disaster for a major footballing nation, but as a record of reasonable success for a minor one: a couple of semi-finals, a few quarters, some heartening wins along the way, and that Michael Owen goal against Argentina.
The funny thing is, now that all the hope’s gone, things are looking up. Yes, there have been significant patches of gloom along the route to this week’s cheering World Cup qualification, but they haven’t been used as material for the traditional dirges of existential despair; instead, the punditocracy has taken a masochistic delight in switching from cheerleaders to doomsayers, each member tossing off his predictions of failure more casually than the last. The weather, they idly explain, means we haven’t a chance in Brazil. That, and the fact that we’re crap.
As this fatalism has taken over, a funny thing has happened: we’ve actually started to play all right. The last two games were against mediocre opposition, and there were plenty of errors, but there was also an attacking verve that England have rarely displayed. Freed from the weight of expectation, they looked better than they have done in years. It’s become fun again.
Last month, as David Cameron attempted to secure international support for a putative intervention in Syria at the G20, an unnamed Russian aide referred to Britain as “just a small island no one pays any attention to.” That was a bit mean-spirited – for a start, as the BBC huffily pointed out, this is actually the ninth biggest island on the planet – and it was not terribly surprising that the Prime Minister leapt at the opportunity to burnish his reputation for patriotism. “Britain may be a small island,” he said, “but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history… we are very proud of everything we do.” Beating fascism, ending slavery, inventing “every sport currently played around the world”, and turning out some really top diplomats – the list of achievements was near endless. Elgar! The Beatles! One Direction! Mr Cameron was, he joked, “thinking of setting this to music.”
This all went down very well at the time. But yesterday, as I found myself enjoying my footballing Englishness for the first time in a while, it did begin to seem a bit tired – particularly when set against the more prosaic image of George Osborne hawking for business in Beijing. We are still huge international players, it’s true, still the sixth largest economy in the world. And we do have a proud history, albeit one featuring a few darker episodes that did not make the Prime Ministerial paean. But it’s not unpatriotic to think that our sense of that history can be a bit stifling. We might, you sometimes feel, be significantly more at ease with ourselves if we could somehow let it go – if we could stop assessing ourselves in such reductively comparative terms. Which, after all, is the gesture that bespeaks a more confident nation: to jealously claim Shakespeare and cricket as our own, and issue reminders whenever we are slighted – or to give them freely to the world, laugh off the teasing, and then to get on with whatever’s next?
This style matters. Few countries as great as this one have such a mean-spirited public life, and that corrosive public tone is a symptom of insecurity. But it is about much more than style. Half a century ago, Dean Acheson referred to us as a country that had “lost an empire, but not yet found a role”. Our misadventures of the last decade or so have rather suggested that we are still flailing about for that conception of ourselves. It is not mere psychobabble to attribute the misadventures of Iraq and Afghanistan, or our fawning subsequent attempts to maintain the transparently rhetorical “special relationship”, to this hubristic desire to matter. Our banking sector’s excesses can likewise be attributed in part to this desperate insistence that this is a country that punches above its weight. And it is surely symptomatic of the special arrogance of an island nation that so many of us are so disdainful of a European Union that remains baffled by our suspicion. With such disastrous excesses, of course, we merely accelerate the decline.
It is obviously very much harder for a politician to say any of this than a football pundit. (To criticise British institutions for their failings, we have been reminded in recent weeks, is seen in some quarters as synonymous with hating the country itself.) The good fortune of the football pundit is that he doesn’t have to get elected, but the difference is also the result of the fact that sport is cyclical: since it’s not totally ridiculous for the FA’s Greg Dyke to target a World Cup victory in 2022, it’s a little easier to admit the truth of our lesser status in the meantime.
Our response to the rise of China and India is, in contrast, less likely to be effective on quite the same schedule. It may, then, be time to abandon the sporting metaphor. The irony is, the habit of mind that sees our wellbeing as part of a zero-sum international contest is exactly the problem. And the sooner we stop trying to win at everything, the happier we will be.