Dominic Lawson: England's defeat was such a crying shame

You don't see Flintoff or Dallaglio reaching for the hankies after they lose a vital international match
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The Independent Online

Rooney im Gentleman-Test durchgefallen, declared Deutsche Welle. You can say that again. To those of us who actually live in these islands, the idea that our pre-eminent football player might ever have been able to pass as a gentleman is preposterous. Yet there is something poignant in the fact that the German equivalent of the BBC World Service has such an outdated view of our national character, as represented on the field of play.

Three months ago I wrote in this column that professional football had become a game for foul-mouthed cheats and contrasted this with the conduct displayed by national representatives in the sports of Rugby Union and, in particular, cricket. The response from one or two football-loving readers was itself startlingly abusive, but there were some reasoned objections. It was pointed out, for example, that the Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi had been captured on film furtively attempting to damage the wicket in a Test match against England last November, and thus unfairly aid his own leg-spin. That's true, but Afridi's reaction to being found out was grovellingly apologetic. He said he was "very disappointed" in himself for acting in such a way, adding that "players like me should set a good example to others because they watch us to learn."

Compare and contrast with the reaction of Wayne Rooney to his dismissal from England's World Cup quarter-final against Portugal for deliberately stamping on an opponent's testicles. The match is long over, so there can be no further excuses based on "the heat of the moment". Yet Sven-Goran Eriksson was quoted in Monday's papers saying that Rooney had made no admission of guilt and no apology to his team-mates. "He is not that sort of person," said the Swede, in much the same way that the proud owner of a pitbull terrier would comment on his dog's unyielding temperament.

In a way, it's understandable that a player's manager would attempt to exculpate one of his team. But the normally judgemental red-top tabloid press have been equally keen to indulge Rooney's violent tantrums. To read their reports - as, in the cause of research, I have - you would imagine that it was all the fault of the Portuguese for not letting young Wayne have things all his own way on the pitch. For them, the villain of the piece is Portugal's Ronaldo, who allegedly asked the referee to send Rooney off. Again, in the interests of research, I have scrutinised the photographs of the incident. The Argentine referee, Horacio Elizondo, appears so close that he could have shaken hands with Rooney - were not the Englishman engrossed in attempting to reduce the Portuguese birth rate. Senor Elizondo, in other words, needed no one to tell him what his duty was.

The red tops' endorsement of the Croxteth Castrator - as Rooney would undoubtedly have been billed if he had followed his father into boxing - is worrying for a particular reason. These newspapers tend to have an unerring sense of their readers' prejudices. It suggests that the vast majority of the country's football fans see Rooney as more sin binned against than sinning. This seems all of a piece with the widespread attitude that the England football team were in some way desperately unfortunate not to have progressed further - although no evidence seems to have been assembled to demonstrate the truth of that proposition - other than the fact that our players are the best-paid in the world.

If the England football fans really believed that our team were destined to win the World Cup, and have been unjustly denied, then it perhaps helps to explain why over 100 English fans were arrested in Gelsenkirchen after the match against Portugal. Incidentally, it is extraordinary that despite the fact that well over 10 per cent of the total arrests during the tournament were of England supporters, the British authorities and media have been extolling the virtuous conduct of "our fans." This has been achieved by inventing an interesting distinction: the fans who misbehave most are not fans at all, but merely masquerading as such. Thus Stephen Thomas, the assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester, who was in charge of the English policing operation in Germany during the tournament, has declared that "The vast majority of those arrested were not English football supporters. They are drunken English yobs who show exactly the same behaviour on Friday or Saturday night in our town centres at home." So all's well, then.

I do appreciate that international football is not a game for namby-pambies, and that the people who follow it have every right to rejoice in a masculine society of boozing and brawling, provided that they don't actually break the law, or other people's limbs. But why, then, do they put up with the truly pathetic sight of the England footballers crying during and after a big match? Like an estimated 20 million of my fellow countrymen, I watched the game against Portugal. David Beckham cried when he was substituted. After the penalty shoot-out, it appeared that almost the whole England side were blubbing. I'm sorry to bring up cricket and rugby once again - well, I'm not, actually - but you don't see the likes of Andrew Flintoff or Lawrence Dallaglio reaching for the hankies after they lose a vital international match.

It might be claimed that the England footballers are all new men, fully in touch with their feminine sides and well-versed in the body-language of emotional intelligence. Knowing what you do about professional football, does that seem remotely plausible as an explanation for the post-match breakdown? Or does it seem probable that the England team were crying because they more closely resemble spoiled children who find it almost impossible to accept that they can't have what they want?

When a few months back I wrote some harsh words about what is still, without irony, called "the beautiful game", some readers accused me of anti-working class snobbery. That is the sort of accusation which it is impossible to rebut convincingly, especially if there is a grain of truth in it, so I won't attempt to. But I will confess to being strongly sympathetic to what might be described as bourgeois values. It's true that emotional self-control used to be seen as a characteristic of the English as a whole, from Duke to dustman. Now, however, such self-restraint is seen as little better than suburbanite repression, and is scorned in the way that John Betjeman used to ridicule middle-class gentility (only without his wit).

It's obvious that Wayne Rooney is just one young man of exceptional sporting gifts, whose character and conduct could easily be attributed to an excess of money and pressure at an early age. But the public equanimity with which his brutality has been greeted seems to demonstrate his ordinariness - and that is truly terrifying.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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