When Leicester City won the English Premier League in May, it was considered nothing less than a miracle. Nearly every story about the Foxes noted the 5,000-to-1 odds they were given of winning the title, and the list of likelier long-shot scenarios was as full of impossibilities as it was endless. Piers Morgan taking the reins at Arsenal, Elvis turning up alive, the discovery of the Loch Ness monster—all were deemed more probable by bookies than a Leicester championship, in most cases far more so, pushing the team’s feat into the realm of the supernatural.
While Leicester’s success still glows with an otherworldly aura, it will soon be exposed to the grinding reality of modern soccer: wealthier teams out to poach its stars, a punishing new schedule that includes the UEFA Champions League, and, above all, pressure to repeat its singular triumph. So Leicester finds itself in quite a conundrum. Even God doesn’t produce miracles on demand, and yet this once-lowly club from the English Midlands will be asked to do it twice in two years. Anything less is bound to be a letdown.
A strange situation, but not an unprecedented one. In fact, as members of the world’s most tortured footballing nation, Leicester fans are familiar with the perennial disappointment that follows what could charitably be called unrealistic expectations. I am referring to the biennial psychodrama that is the English soccer team’s turn on the international stage, which this year will unfold in France, the host of Euro 2016. This is what happens when a miracle becomes a curse, which in England’s case extends well beyond soccer to color the way a nation sees itself.
Every two years, whether it is at the World Cup or the European Championship, the same sequence of events takes place: an agreement across England to keep expectations low; the sudden jump in expectations on the eve of the tournament; abysmal play on the field, accompanied by a spectacular falling out between star players and fans that scandalizes the entire country and results in years of recriminations; nervous breakdowns, leading to reassessments of character at the personal and national level; and finally, ignominious exit from the tournament, usually in the early stages.
All this hysteria flows from England’s sole World Cup victory in 1966, which in the past half-century has taken on the glow of divine intervention. Everything about the final match against West Germany bears the hallmarks of legend: the unmistakable echoes of World War II, the flags fluttering at Wembley Stadium, the English side’s red long-sleeved jerseys, adorned simply on the left breast with the Royal Arms. Even Bobby Charlton’s Trump-ian flap of hair has become emblematic of a more glorious era. The game itself was a classic: West Germany tied the match in the dying moments of regulation time, only for Geoff Hurst to get the go-ahead goal in extra time, wherein the ball hit the crossbar, landed just inside the goal line, and then, seemingly against the laws of physics, bounced out of the goal mouth. (Whether the ball ever fully crossed the goal line is an endless point of debate.) When the final whistle blew, Queen Elizabeth II was on hand to present the Jules Rimet trophy to captain Bobby Moore.
As Alastair Reid would write of the victorious aftermath, for The New Yorker: “[E]verybody’s face hurt with smiling, including mine, and when I walked home, close to midnight, the horns and hooters were still at it, and there was always a skirl of song round the next corner. I stopped to talk to a solitary policeman who was shaking his head on a street corner. ‘Never seen the likes of it in me life, sir,’ he said in wonderment. ‘The end of the war, they say, but I were no more than a nipper then. Course, Christmas, New Year, well, you expect it then. But if you’d have said to me three weeks ago when the Cup began that we’d be watching a night like this here, I’d have said you was plain barmy, begging your pardon, sir.’”
The reference to the war is apt, in that it was England’s greatest triumph in the post-war era, a last hurrah amid the steady diminishment of the globe-encompassing power it once held. It also connects English soccer to wartime virtues of stoicism and honor, a reputation that would be tarnished when the sport was overtaken by hooliganism in the 1970s and 1980s. This was a period when it was tempting to see English soccer as a metaphor for a country in crisis: godless, rudderless, nearly lawless. As Bill Buford would write in his study of soccer violence, Among the Thugs, some 25 years after Reid’s dispatch: “Nothing substantive is there; there is nothing to belong to, although it is still possible, I suppose, to belong to a phrase—the working class—a piece of language that serves to reinforce certain social customs and a way of talking and that obscures the fact that the only thing hiding behind it is a highly mannered suburban society stripped of culture and sophistication and living only for its affectations: a bloated code of maleness, an exaggerated, embarrassing patriotism, a violent nationalism, an array of bankrupt antisocial habits.” In Buford’s England, there are no sentimental bobbies shaking their head in wonderment at the soccer. They come bearing riot gear and attack dogs.
Then came the 1990s, when English football was reborn as the English Premier League, a sprawling entertainment complex that turned sleepy, local clubs into global brands that could draw talent and obscene infusions of cash from around the world. As foreign oligarchs snapped up English teams, loaded them with players from South America, Africa, and the European continent, and turned these lucrative organizations into debt-ridden investment vehicles, a new metaphor set in: This was the England of high finance, rampant speculation, and wildly inflated assets, a node in a borderless network that caters to an ultra-wealthy transnational elite at the expense of hometown identity and tradition.
English soccer has become a kind of paradox. The country boasts the most exciting, richest league in the world. But these days, it is an open question whether the national team will even make it out of the group stage of international tournaments. The English have become token players in their own league, at least at the top level, muscled out by better players from Spain, France, Germany, the Ivory Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere. Chelsea’s starting eleven regularly features only two Englishmen, John Terry and Gary Cahill, both defenders. Manchester City also has only two prominent English players, Joe Hart (goalkeeper) and Raheem Sterling. Arsenal has several decent English players, but the motor of the team has long been continental in character. Of the big four, only Manchester United has a franchise-defining player—Wayne Rooney—who is English.
This stands in contrast to the 1998-99 Manchester United team that won the treble and is perhaps the most iconic of the Premier League era. While manager Sir Alex Ferguson certainly acquired players from other countries, and was as responsible as anyone else for the globalization of English soccer, the Manchester United of that era had, if not a strictly English identity, a distinctly regional one, with a core of English players (David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Andy Cole, the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, Teddy Sheringham) surrounded by two Irishmen (Roy Keane, Denis Irwin) and a Welshman (Ryan Giggs). Now it is an incoherent mess.
Out of this confusion was born the Miracle of Leicester. The club is also owned by an oligarch—the Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha—and has plenty of foreign players, from Japan, Algeria, and elsewhere. But the entire squad cost £54 million in transfer fees, equivalent to the cost of some individual players, like Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne. (That’s a one-time fee of $78 million, excluding De Bruyne’s salary; let that sink in.) Furthermore, there is a certain English flavor to the squad, epitomized by striker Jamie Vardy, a former factory worker and bottom-tier player who has become a kind of rebel working-class hero. As Wright Thompson explained for ESPN the Magazine, “The fans love to sing a song about him, booze and cocaine, ‘Jamie Vardy’s having a party. Bring your vodka and your charlie.’” (He’s also something of a racist, but that only means he fits right into a long, storied tradition in English soccer.)
As England prepares to face off against Russia on Saturday in its opening game of Euro 2016, the fate of English football and the Cinderella story of Leicester City have become one, with Leicester’s unlikely success being cited as a reason to hope the country can go all the way. The Telegraph writes: “England are not the best footballing nation heading to France, but Leicester have shown anything is possible—and we even have one of their players!” That player would be Vardy.
The great twist this year is that England’s summer of soccer will play out against a highly charged political backdrop: a referendum on whether Great Britain should leave the European Union, a vote commonly known as the Brexit. The proponents of the “Leave” campaign are tapping into widespread resentment of supposed European encroachments on British sovereignty, opposition to immigration policies that have allegedly taken British jobs and welfare benefits, and the belief that Britain can do better on its own. Those who wish Britain to “Remain” say the latter is a delusional, nostalgia-induced way to look at a small island nation that has only benefited economically and strategically from being part of a larger entity.
It is easy to see the magical thinking that connects the “Leave” campaign to the undying belief that England is still a major soccer power. It is rooted in events like the 1966 World Cup, when the country was, for a fleeting moment, on top of the world. Even Manchester United’s 1999 treble can be seen as being touched by the miraculous: Ryan Giggs’s mazy run through the Arsenal defense to win the FA Cup semifinal; the two goals United scored in stoppage time to snatch the Champions League trophy from—who else?—the Germans of Bayern Munich. Here is one final way in which soccer is a metaphor for England, a country that sees a special destiny—almost heaven-sent—inscribed in the gauzy glories of the past.
The reality, of course, is much messier. The anxieties produced by the New Labour-David Cameron era, which are themselves part of a broader weakening of national identity across Europe, are real, but the response can’t be a flight into an idealized version of a country that, at best, ceased to exist a long time ago. England’s performance at Euro 2016 could help underscore this point. It is expected to advance out of Group B, where it faces Russia, Slovakia, and Wales. But this is England, after all, which means we should prepare for the worst. By the time the June 23 referendum comes around, England could feasibly be out, before the Group of 16. At that point, the country may realize there is no such thing as miracles; only flukes, freak occurrences, and exceptions that prove the rule.