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Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman: What football says about a country

It is not the fear of losing that does them in. Losing's far too familiar an experience to frighten them a jot. It's the fear of winning

Mindful of Andreas Whittam Smith's teaching that it's madness for a hack ever to write an open letter, I must resist the temptation to address the following idea directly to Fabio Capello. Besides, he'll be frantic today preparing that emergency petition asking Fifa to waive the rules, and let him draft 90-year-old Bert Williams MBE, England's goalkeeper six decades ago, into the squad.

But if anyone cares to translate and email it to Don Fabio, the meisterplan is this. Book Paul McKenna on Mr Williams's flight and have him hypnotise the squad to believe that they are in England, in October, playing for their clubs; to see Algeria, Slovenia and other future opponents as Bolton Wanderers; and to hear the vuvuzelas as not 10,000 livid bees trapped in a copper drum but that elegiac chant "the referee's a wanker". I'd also suggest asking Fifa to let each play in his own club's strip, but even in the rainbow nation that might be a technicolour lurch too far.

The problem with England footballers is not with their football, after all, and never has been. The problem is their Englishness. This much has been a hunch since that 1970 quarter-final in Leon when, what is happily only a once-in-a-Methusalian-lifetime event, an inexplicable goalkeeping calamity launched the process of converting a 2-0 lead over West Germany into a 2-3 defeat.

The decades since have firmed suspicion into fact. Concern for the mental and physical wellbeing of readers either side of the border (it's not my business to endanger Scottish ribcages) preclude a lengthy reprise of the detail. Let it suffice that Sunday week marks the 20th anniversary of the trauma in Turin from which many of us will never recover. On the verge of reaching a final against an Argentina so toothless that even England might have found no way of failing to beat it, club football's most reliable penalty taker, Stuart Pearce, lamely located the German keeper's legs. The German didn't miss (none has since 1982, and they won that shoot-out anyway). And then Chris Waddle, unerringly converted a rugby union try.

By 2006, when Frank Lampard couldn't have found the net had Portugal's Ricardo chosen the start of his run-up to nip behind it for a beer and a chicken piri piri sandwich, the genesis of our relentless underperfomance had already long been plain. It is not the fear of losing that does them in. Losing's far too familiar an experience to frighten them a jot. It's the fear of winning.

Nations that lose great empires do not recover from the shock to their self-esteem for centuries, the sense of defeatism breeding a sadomasochistic addiction to losing and its cathartic pain and self-pity. That's a difficult drug to give up.

We've seen it time and time again across the sporting spectrum... Tim Henman losing 11 consecutive games from a set and a break up on Guillermo Coria in a French Open semi; Colin Montgomerie shanking a facile eight-iron and then putting like a Parkinson's sufferer when a 92-year-old Jewish grandmother would have won the US Open needing four shots from the middle of the 18th fairway; Paula Radcliffe crushed by hot favouritism for the 2006 Olympic marathon; Mike Gatting's suicidal reverse sweep with England coasting to victory over Australia in a one- day cricket World Cup final. I could bore you into a yet deeper coma over another 127 pages, but the point is obvious enough already: it cannot be coincidence.

The notion of national character hasn't been wildly in vogue for some time. But you cannot watch a lot of sport without knowing it, and never more clearly than in a World Cup. The moment it became apparent that the Soviet Union was doomed, for example, was watching a terrific USSR team play like carefree maniacs to lose 3-4, having twice led Belgium, in 1986. These people aren't the despondent automata of western propaganda, you suddenly realised. They are vibrant free spirits and (sorry if this level of geopolitical analysis is too sophisticated) won't tolerate the totalitarian yoke for long. A few years later, the Party was over and there was Boris Yeltsin on that tank outside the Moscow White House.

International football never fails to strip the national psyche bare. You can tell without a glance at its GDP projections that Brazil is preparing for life as an economic power from the sense of responsibility evident from their play.

In 1982, a uniquely talented team (Socrates, Zico, Eder, Falcao, Junior) self-destructed against classically canny but indescribably inferior Italy by eschewing anything that could technically be described as "a defence". Now, as we saw against admirably well drilled North Korea (would you lose your shape with a return to Pyongyang imminent?), Brazil is a rigidly disciplined, almost entirely Europeanised outfit, the samba sacrificed in favour of Requiem For The Beautiful Game for glockenspiel and Italian Harp. They are sombre grown-ups now on both world and footballing stages, and without quite wishing on them a return to the dirt poverty of before, well, it's nothing like watching Brazil.

Was it happenstance that Spain, the strongest squad known in decades, chose the day their fiscal woes dominated front pages to question the assumption that they'll stroll to the Fifa World Cup trophy by losing, mirabile dictu, to the Swiss? Or that those other economically emaciated PIGS – Portugal, Greece and Italy – had opening games to make England's look like Germany's extermination of Australia? You cannot separate a national football from its nation's history, ancient or contemporary. The one brief post-war English period of genuine optimism and self-confidence came, oddly enough, in the swinging mid-1960s.

As for these Germans, if their fearsome-looking young side is stuffed with Poles and Brazilians, and their most creative player a Turk, what better way to remind the world that all that racial purity stuff is far behind them? A national character is hardly set in stone.

Even so, it was needlessly instructive to hear Jürgen Klinsmann reflecting on that 1990 shoot-out on Wednesday night. When the final whistle blew and penalties loomed, said the dive bomber, they expected to win. It wasn't arrogance, he added (as if). They just knew they would. And us? We of course knew, on some subliminal level, that we wouldn't... just as we know today (and please God I'm wrong) that we'll clumsily progress precisely as far as it takes to meet one of the international giants.

Here's a chastening fact for any of you whom 44 years of hurt have still not quite stopped dreaming. Never in any World Cup on foreign soil – not bleeding once in 11 tournaments – have England beaten one of the big boys beyond the initial qualifying stage. So if and when that gruesome form-book is upheld, don't scapegoat a perfectly good and committed squad of players, an ordinarily great coach whose eccentric decision-making conferred honorary citizenship upon him last Friday, those filthy foreigners or the ref. Just for once, hunt out the real culprit. Blame the shirt.