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If the English Premier League is the Best in the World, Why do the Three Lions Crash and Burn?

It’s not fair, mum!

Mary Turner/Getty Images Sports

Did Luis Suarez surprise England? Apart from killing them? It’s hardly feasible that Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge or Raheem Sterling could say they’d never seen anything like that before. They’d all played through a season at Liverpool with Suarez in which he scored 31 goals in 33 games and won just about every award anyone could invent. And never bit into more than a burger. No, Suarez wasn’t a shock. The England team knew Luis was going to be murder, insolent, and laughing in their faces. There’s no one they’d seen more likely to carry an injury into a big game and be the decider. At the end of the devastating 2-1 defeat by Uruguay, Luis went up to Steven Gerrard and gave him a hug, kind words and not so much as a nibble. They’re chums, you see.

All of which is one reason why the English Premier League is generally the highest quality, most competitive, and entertaining soccer drama anywhere in the world (expect The New Republic to go over to a regular season-long eight page Premiership supplement in the fall). But understand the pressure that puts on England.

Take Chelsea, a steady contender for top honors year after year—and listen to the experience of a fan who has been with the team sixty years and whose memory goes back to 1955 when they won the league title (it was called Division 1 then) but declined to play in the European Cup because … well, Europe was a bit silly, wasn’t it? Chelsea had a fair 2013-14 season—what manager Jose Mourinho would regard as a wasteland. But they ended up supplying the World Cup with actors. England had Gary Cahill, and Daniel Sturridge (a player Chelsea let escape). Brazil took Oscar, David Luiz, Ramires, and Willian. Belgium had Eden Hazard as well as Romelu Lukaku (on loan to Everton from Chelsea), and don’t forget Thibaut Courtois, perhaps the best keeper on view and on long-term loan from the Blues to Atletico Madrid. Andre Schurrle was playing for Germany. Samuel Eto'o was running around for Cameroon. Fernando Torres and Cesar Azpilicueta were in the Spanish squad (along with Juan Mata, a guy many Blues hold onto in memory after his departure in January). Petr Cech, Nemanja Matic, and Branislav Ivanovic would have been there if the Czech Republic and Serbia had managed to qualify.

Is that all? Not at all—John Obi Mikel was with Nigeria, and Michael Essien came on for Ghana, and he still has the bluest blood. Is that all? By no means—who knows if England wouldn’t have been steadier at the back if they’d included the aging legs and cunning heads of John Terry and Ashley Cole (both of whom have behavior records in line with Luis Suarez)?

Do you see where I’m going? The Chelsea squad doesn’t like to deal with non-international stars, and it seems suspicious of English players. But I can remember a time when Chelsea had a gang of kids from the London area, players who had come up in their youth system –Peter Bonetti, Kenneth Shellito, John Hollins, Chopper Harris, Terry Venables, Barry Bridges, Bobby Tambling and then on to Hudson, Osgood, Hutchinson and so on, with even that Scot, Charlie Cook, a prince of the King’s Road.

No one player was closer to that ethos than Jimmy Greaves, tiny, mercurial and lethal, one of the great English players. Greaves was a startling figure at Chelsea from the age of fifteen, floating over the mud: in four seasons, he scored 124 goals in league games, with 41 of them in his last season. Then he was traded to A.C.Milan (as in Milan, Italy), on 140 pounds a week and a signing bonus of 15,000 pounds! Prodigious numbers for an Englishman playing in a system that had had a controlled maximum wage of 20 pounds a week. But the London kid didn’t like Milan, the food, or people speaking Italian. I mean, it was all foreign, wasn’t it?

I cannot tell this story without feeling the English mood of the early 1960s which says—it‘s not fair, Mum, they pull your shirt and grab your knackers, and spit in your face. We are not far from the Englishness that is uncomfortable with people of color, who speak in tongues, and eat fancy food. After all, what is this thing called Europe, but a threat to isolation? So Greavesy wasn’t happy away from home. After fourteen games, he returned to the English system (to Spurs!), where in 1961 the maximum wage limit was at last deemed illegal, but you ate slabs of cold pie with chips before a game, and afterwards. I’m trying to make fun of this, but soccer has its roots in working-class solidarity (also known as crass reactionary neo-fascism). Even now, the country that was reluctant for so long to join the European Economic Community has David Cameron’s promise of a referendum that could permit withdrawal.

Suppose England leaves Europe, will that make any difference to football? How can it when so much English spirit has never quite been in Europe. Football won’t change much. The Premiership is sustained by money, and that is the juice of cable television and a substantial audience ready to watch every game on screen, because—after all—you need to be a Russian gangster to afford to get in at Chelsea and see a game live. So the glamor of the Premiership depends on getting mercenary pirates like Didier Drogba, Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Yaya Toure, Arjen Robben, David Silva, Eden Hazard, Robin van Persie—the international stars of the game. There are big leagues in Spain, Italy, and Germany, to be sure, but the television empire of soccer thrives on the English game.

Yet England nurse their hard luck mood. The World Cup victory in 1966 is too long ago now to be relevant. Recent penalty shoot-outs, and the regrets, are more the national recipe. In Brazil, this time. England made their swiftest World Cup exit in living memory—after just two games—but they played quite well. It’s just that they made critical mistakes in defense, had no midfield authority, and were raw and nervy in attack. Too many of them saw Suarez and read the writing on the wall. You can say that the professional game in England is as good as it gets, but that’s intimidating for an England team. It makes everyone wary, from manager Roy Hodgson (who has never succeeded in the Premiership) to kid star Raheem Sterling. They expect the worst and then the crushing media rebukes. Mum, it’s not fair. You could read that on the glum faces of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. But when you looked at Suarez you saw a tiger with blood on its teeth.