On Friday night, the English football team are playing a crucial game against Montenegro as they seek to qualify for next summer's World Cup finals in Brazil. It's not exactly the most daunting task for the representatives of our national game, but, while we've savoured many and diverse sporting glories these past few years, the England football team have provided very few - if any - of them. So nothing is certain at Wembley.
The “30 years of hurt” we sang about in 1996 has now become almost half a century of hurt and, even if we get to Brazil, no one seriously believes that England will make an impression on the tournament. Do we, and should we, care? Well, no and yes.
We don't care because the concept of English football barely exists these days. For most of us who support a Premier League club, the hiatus in the season created by international fixtures is an inconvenience, an interruption to our rich diet of Super Sundays, of pumped and primped millionaires contesting bragging rights on behalf of foreign billionaires.
The Premier League has become so inflated that it consumes all in its path. This is still a male-dominated world, and we all know that men can't concentrate on two things at the same time. So I cannot be alone in concluding that, if given the choice between Manchester City winning the Premier League and England winning the World Cup, I would unhesitatingly choose the former. Players choose their club before their country, so why shouldn't fans do the same?
It is peculiarly counter-intuitive in the modern world: we are driven towards association with ever bigger global entities and brands - Europe, the G20, Amazon, Apple - but in this instance we narrow our focus, and identify with the local rather than the national. Of course, there's nothing parochial about our domestic football. When our teams have a bad night in European competition, it's billed as a setback for English football. Really? Manchester City were thrashed by Bayern Munich the other week, and only two English players were in the starting XI. But this collection of Argentines, Spaniards and Eastern Europeans might as well, in our eyes, be from Colyhurst or Whalley Range, representing our club, representing our city.
Questions of birth only matter when it comes to international football, and even then we're prepared to manipulate the rules (hence the efforts to get Manchester United's new wunderkind Adnan Januzaj, a teenager born in Brussels of Albanian/Kosovan parentage, to opt for England on residency grounds). We can't halt the Premier League juggernaut, but we should care about what is left in its wake. Football is our national game, and it matters to us in a way that other sports just don't.
We take pride in the recognition that the Premier League is regarded as the toughest competition in the world. But it is as much owned by foreign companies as our water and our electricity. We would like to take pride in the England team, but we cannot any longer allow ourselves. For one, we've been seduced by the gazillions and the glamour. And for two, we can't face another 50 years of hurt.
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