Sooner or later during any international football competition in which England feature we are sure to hear some variation on “England expects,” the reference being to Admiral Nelson’s exhortation on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar, the battle that gave Britain effective control of the high seas and, for the next century-plus, the modern world.
It’s short for “England expects that every man will do his duty,” and it’s embedded so deeply within the national psyche (even Wikipedia says so!) that more than the first two words seldom need to be spoken for the message to be conveyed. Whenever the European Championship or the World Cup roll around, England does indeed expect, but what exactly it is expecting is another matter.
Where once it was assumed – at the level of near-certainty – that Britannia would rule the waves and the world as far into the future as could be imagined, as well as to triumph in any endeavor, military, economic, cultural, or sporting, it deigned to undertake, a rather different outlook is abroad in the land today. Has been for some time, actually, perhaps ever since the Americans usurped England’s pre-eminent role on the world stage, but even as the USA began to dwarf the British in military and material terms, the mother country could console itself with the knowledge that, if nothing else, it continued to be more, well, civilized. Athens to America’s Rome, as Harold Macmillan memorably put it.
But culture, like so many other things in life, tends to go where the money is, and while Britain remains stunningly active in literary, artistic and musical terms, such enterprises no longer seem fully validated until they have “made it in America.” Ever since the Second World War the haughty, arrogant nation Britain was once (perhaps a bit unfairly) perceived to be has increasingly had to wrestle with what might as well be termed self-esteem issues.
At least there was always football, the sport that England invented and which has grown to encompass the entire world, apart from a few curious gaps in, well, much of the United States. At least there England could continue to excel, right?
Well, not exactly. But before going on to explain how that particular horse cart has been consistently upended, it’s important to make the distinction between “England” and “Britain” or the “United Kingdom,” terms which are often confused or conflated, especially by Americans. Although the United Kingdom is technically a single country (certainly the taxman will leave you in no doubt of that), when it comes to football and a number of other seemingly more significant (but not really) issues, it’s made up of four countries, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. If there were a single United Kingdom team drawing on all four sources, it would be among the most powerful in the world, but no, that would be too simple (not to mention unthinkable to the Scots, who would cheer passionately for any nation, be it North Korea, Outer Mongolia or even the USA to thump the stuffing out of England).
England being by far the largest of the four nations, and home to the Premier League, probably the world’s most competitive, is the only one that figures consistently in international competitions, but whereas the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish accept their lesser status and gratefully accept the occasional crumbs of glory that fall their way, the English are roused to a simultaneous state of jingoistic fervor and fatalistic torpor by even the most minor conflict.
The jingoism is easy enough to understand – after all, the English literally invented the concept – but why the fatalism? Well, as anyone who even halfheartedly follows the sport can tell you, England, while they should regularly win, almost invariably contrive a way to lose, and usually in the most humiliating and ignominious manner possible.
Simon Kuper has recently written a book called Why England Lose, which purports to analyze, à la Kübler-Ross, the stages of World Cup grief. I haven’t read it yet, but I feel safe in saying that for England, disaster almost inevitably starts with hubris. Having lived in England through several World Cups and Euro championships, I recognize the signs immediately: newspaper headlines, taxi drivers, the man down the pub, all crowing that “this time” it will be different, that the problems have finally been sorted out, that only a handful of dodgy jumped-up foreigners stand in the way of England’s reclaiming its rightful place at the top of the footballing world.
This stage lasts until the first embarrassing struggle against allegedly mediocre opposition, after which the consensus is that England played badly, the ref made some shocking calls, the foreigners cheated, etc., etc. This year the role of mediocre opposition was filled by the United States, a role for which, based on the record it’s achieved during the past couple years, it might have been woefully miscast, and the shock and rage that billowed throughout the land after England struggled to a 1-1 draw against the Americans must have rivaled that which greeted the surrender of Lord Cornwallis.
Cut to Friday night, where in a crowded and noisy East End pub, I and a couple hundred other shocked onlookers watched England stumble about even more ineffectually against an Algeria team that many reckoned was lucky to be in the World Cup at all. “Donkeys” and “clowns” were some of the kinder epithets being tossed about by the audience, and these were England fans. Oh, did I mention that there’s a great English tradition of cheering for the underdog, especially if he puts up a brave fight? So ironically, in this case, one could almost say that the most English thing to do was to cheer for Algeria, who conceivably could have won this thing, and in doing so would almost certainly have knocked England out of the Cup even earlier than usual.
In South Africa apparently they were booing, but here in London, the reaction was more akin to laughter – albeit with a tinge of hysteria – confirming my long-held thesis that football fandom in this country is actually a form of masochism mingled with self-flagellation. In other words, English to the core.
The orgy of grief, outrage and finger-pointing seething through the land is familiar, comfortable territory for any England supporter, to the point where one suspects that the country would barely know how to handle the success enjoyed by footballing powers like Brazil, Germany or Argentina, against whom England routinely suffers its most galling defeats.
It could happen this year as well: if England manage to defeat Slovenia (once a foregone conclusion, now a very fraught and feeble hope) next Wednesday, they’ll be through to the final rounds, enabling them to be eliminated, as is traditional, in the quarterfinals. And – for such is the nature of football – they could even come back from their abysmal start and actually win their second World Cup in only 44 years, a dream to which some starry-eyed (or soddenly drunk) fan somewhere is still no doubt clinging.
But as an alternative, the English might be better advised to follow the lead – and oh, I know how these words hurt, but they’re for the best – of the Americans, who simply ignore the whole thing until and unless they win something.