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Funny Old Wayne

The average Premier League club has very little to do with you, the supporter, and your life. Yes, it is named after your town, but most of the players come from elsewhere, countries you may never have heard of, stay two or three seasons, then leave. The uniform displays the logo of an offshore gambling website. The owners fly in from the Cayman Islands to snap up your club with foreign oil money, mall money, steel money, or money loaned to them by investors which they are then happy to freight onto your club’s debt. Some of the new owners wear the team scarves over their suits for a while but all look at their hand gadgets during the matches. Yes, the ground is located somewhere in or around your town, but then so is Pret a Manger.

There do remain the crest, the colors, the history. And the clubs’ traditions—but to be candid, apart from those of an exalted few, these traditions mostly boil down to a habit of losing, whether in style or in laborious ugliness. Something similar happened to the British car brands.

The changes in the football economy have ensured better players and better games in England. But the regional identity and culture that originally enfolded the clubs suffers.

This is where the World Cup comes in. The England side is still Englishly owned and populated, mainly because it is one of the few state enterprises left, like the BBC. Onto the white of the shirt, you can project whatever you’d like. The football team of any country looks and speaks like the rest of its population, for the most part. Beyond that, it ideally incarnates its most cherished national virtues. In England these are intransigence, fair play, and funniness. Too bad they are not sangfroid, deftness, or the quality the Italians describe as furbo. Every true England team must have a funny player; in the past, it has been characters such as Norbert “Nobby” Stiles, Kevin Keegan, Gazza, and Peter Crouch. They are the ones who will do a robot dance after scoring, burp into the microphone of a Norwegian reporter, show the referee a red card, accidentally fall off a bicycle on a game show, and so on.

Now it is Wayne Rooney. Wayne is less personally eccentric than, say, Paul Gascoigne, but everyone in England would agree that his jug ears, premature balding, and baby blue eyes designate him as the funny player. The humor of Wayne is of a quite traditional, Benny Hill extraction: the punch-up between relatives at his wedding, for instance, and there were some stories about an elderly masseuse. He is also stubborn and seems incapable of any kind of deep deception. But the surfacing of these national virtues at crucial moments often counteracts, rather than complements, his gorgeous natural gifts as a footballer.

It takes an exceptionally strong man, like Dunga (or a free or slightly deranged spirit, like Maradona or Domenech) to decide for himself that a team in the conventional image of its country will not do this time, and to select against national type. Fabio Capello, to all appearances a martinet, with his jutting brow and German-looking glasses, has nonetheless picked a typical England squad and one can expect typical results. After the trauma has passed, though, fans will be able to look back with some satisfaction and admit that, alright, we lost, but at least it was still we who lost.