IF YOU FOLLOW international soccer, you might be familiar with the peculiar English compulsion to vastly overrate their national team. Before each major tournament, high expectations swarm the yellow and the-not-so-yellow press. The punditocracy asserts that the current generation, whatever it may be, is overdue for success. The fans book trips in the hope of a drinking holiday in some exotic place enhanced with national arousal. The players express their thoughts—always a chore—claiming that “the lads can feel it.” Many a tabloid spread is wasted on the coverage of the WAGs (wives and girlfriends), while “controversies” are manufactured to be exposed. With the beginning of each international tournament, the English are ready for high drama to be played out on the soccer pitch.
Alas, it is precisely on the pitch where problems occur for the overpaid and overhyped lads. Traditionally, they are out early in the knock-out stage of the competition. The fans have an angry drunken rampage in the exotic host country, and the punditry gets busy with blaming bad luck, or the manager’s mismanagement, or the other team’s dishonorable tactics and insidious theatrics. And the lads are likely to have garnished their abject underperformance with some sort of embarrassing misdeed.
In the 1998 World Cup, the English shot themselves in the foot in a game against Argentina when David Beckham threw a tantrum and kicked Diego Simone, thereby getting himself ejected and helping his team go out on penalties. Beckham’s effigy was hung outside a London pub; the Daily Mirror printed a dartboard with a bull’s-eye superimposed on him; he received death threats. In 2006, the young and talented Wayne Rooney was expected to take the lads far in the World Cup tournament, but in a quarter-final against Portugal, he stepped on Ricardo Carvalho right in front of the referee, who promptly threw him out of the game. In the 2010 World Cup, the English team produced some of the worst soccer ever played at that level of competition. After an unwatchable game against Algeria, the English supporters, who had loyally followed the team to South Africa, booed the dreadful lads. On his way to the locker room, Rooney mouthed off at the camera and the 21 million people watching the game back home.
But even before the lads get on the pitch, there is often much at which to be appalled. In October 2011, John Terry, the star and the captain of Chelsea, was leading his team in a Premiership game against Chelsea’s local rivals, Queens Park Rangers (QPR), when Terry was alleged to have called the QPR player Anton Ferdinand a “fucking black cunt.” In Britain, that is prosecutable as “racially abusive language,” for which Terry was charged in December 2011. Terry denied the charges, but it is easy to find a YouTube clip from which it is clear what sort of sentiment he was eager to express. The trial, however, was postponed, because it would have distracted the lad from his duties with the English national team. Terry was its captain at the time, and, because captaincy carries a lot of weight in English soccer, the English Football Association (FA) decided in February to strip him of it. The FA did so over the head of the national team manager, Fabio Capello. Not to be outdone by his players at tantrums, he threw one of his own and submitted his resignation.
Terry had already been stripped of captaincy once before. A few months before the 2010 World Cup, it had transpired, thanks to diligent tabloid work, that Terry had sex with Vanessa Perroncel, a lingerie model and the ex-girlfriend of Terry’s Chelsea and English squad teammate Wayne Bridge, who has a child with her. The ecstatic yellow press dealt with it all on a first-name basis: Terry’s wife, Toni, was a friend of Vanessa’s; as fellow WAGs, they frequently shopped themselves blind under the tabloid gaze. Bridge refused to talk or play with Terry—he took himself out of the national team. Capello dressed down Terry by taking away his captaincy, declaring that he would never get it back. The manager then bestowed the title upon Rio Ferdinand, Terry’s partner in the English defense and the brother of the yet-to-be-insulted Anton.
After the fiasco in South Africa, some soul-searching took place, much of it in the swamps of the Murdochian press, but then everything went back to what in English soccer is considered normal. Terry was given back the captaincy by Capello (having undermined his authority in South Africa by publicly questioning his tactics), all of 13 months after being promised he would never see it again. The WAGs went on shopping and the lads remained the lads, their laddish qualities (pride, libido, bad grammar) forever beyond reproach, their patriotic devotion never in question.
After Capello resigned earlier this year, the managerial post was given to the tight-lipped and stodgy Roy Hodgson, whose coaching specialty is grinding out results with an underdog team. But even Hodgson could not avoid “controversy.” He had a good reason not to include Rio Ferdinand, who had been injured, on his initial list of players who would travel to Euro 2012. But when Hodgson lost Gary Cahill, his starting defender, to a broken jaw, instead of calling a by-now-recovered Ferdinand, he called up Martin Kelly, an inexperienced Liverpool player. In no time, Hodgson’s snub of Ferdinand was interpreted as an effort to accommodate Terry, who would presumably have been uncomfortable playing with the brother of the man at whom he hurled racial slurs. Columns were written, other black players spoke up, anti-racism organizations expressed dismay. Hodgson had to expand upon the “football reasons” for not including Ferdinand, and his explanations were unconvincing. All this before the first ball at Euro 2012 was even kicked. The “controversy” did not bode well, but it did provide an excuse for the lads’ probable failure.
IT IS TEMPTING to interpret the recurring delusion of the English national team’s unfulfilled potential by relating it to the delusion of the bottomless pool of British greatness, which is, of course, a mutation of imperial nostalgia. But the more prosaic, and reasonable, interpretation is that the establishment of the Premiership and its economic structure in 1992—which resulted in rivers of money flowing from TV rights and increased ticket prices—brought about a transformation of soccer from working-class pastime to front-page-friendly entertainment, made available to the affluent middle class and the sorry remnants of the working class by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Soccer is, in many ways, the bread and butter of the tabloid universe, for which the players are rewarded with caviar and constant attention. They see themselves magnified in the mirror of inflated wages and screaming front pages. Without enlarging their importance (in the sense of “penis enlargement”), there would be nothing to talk about, as there would be no lad and WAG culture. The whole thing—the financial structure of the Premiership, where most of the clubs are deep in the red; the overvalued players; the overblown potential of the national team—is a bubble. The perpetuation of delusion is partly driven by the fear of its bursting.
Still, reality periodically intrudes. The consensus before Euro 2012 seemed to be that the English lads were simply not good and that the team spirit was damaged by Terry’s shenanigans and a series of unfortunate injuries. But the English team ground out a tie in their first Euro 2012 game against France, defending trenchantly like a proper underdog. They won their second game, against Sweden, in a match that resembled a fight between swinging drunks, whereby all tactical considerations were abandoned; England was the side left standing. In no time was the sense of reality in rapid retreat. The heroism and adventurousness allegedly evident in the slug-off against Sweden has been rhapsodically praised, the previously dampened ambition now restored. Rooney, who, with his suspension completed, can play in the final group-stage game against Ukraine, has rushed to tip the English for the European crown.
In the last round of the group stage, the English beat the hapless Ukraine and, thanks to the French team (a sorry story of its own) losing to Sweden, found themselves unexpectedly winning the group. The humble hope has been replaced by the growing belief the lads may go all the way. But if history has taught us anything, the bubble of hope and glory will inescapably burst, and the cycle of delusion will start again.
Aleksandar Hemon is the author, most recently, of Love and Obstacles. This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.