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Live From Rustenburg: Savoring English Decline

RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- “Well done,” the middle-aged England fan said to me outside Royal Bafokeng Stadium last night after his country’s 1-1 draw against the United States. The civility was less rare than you might imagine. Sure, there was the drunken Brit in the eternal shuttle-bus queue in the red-clay parking lot shouting -- and if you read my first post, you know it brought a smile to my face -- “You’re shit and you know you are!” at a harmless group of flag-clad Americans. But he was drowned out by a chorus of “There Were 10 British Soldiers on a Hill.” And, generally, the English seemed stunned, sinking quickly into their usual World Cup funk. Lofty expectations, meet harsh reality. Sure, each side earned a crucial point, and the USA was outplayed for the bulk of the second half, but it looked like schadenfreude and felt like schadenfreude, so it must have been schadenfreude. Yes, USA Beats England, 1-1. Suck it, Fiver.

Like our fearless editor, I’ve been reading Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics, and while I occasionally throw my hands up at their overbroad, often ungrounded and sometimes naive assessments about the business of sports, not to mention frequent Moneyball references, they do seem to get England right. In that same shuttle-bus line, another England fan, this one a woman, who also probably had a Budweiser or three, asked aggressively how many World Cups the U.S. had won. Talk about begging the question. As most sentient England fans admit, 1966 is a long time ago. And Ingerland’s solitary title is rather outnumbered by the 11 World Cups since, which, of course, it should have won, including the ones for which it didn’t qualify. Unlucky or unworthy, take your pick, England, but Kuper and Szymanski make the case that once every half century or more is about right, given England’s population, football history and socioeconomics.

The problem for England is that, in another couple of decades, the U.S. will have a reasonable soccer history of its own, and its population isn’t getting smaller, and its economy isn’t likely to, either. Advantage: USA. Ditto for other former soccer minnows, African and Asian sides included. The reality for the St. George’s Cross brigades is that, while England will remain in the second half of the first division of soccer nations, it’s going to have more company there down the road. Winning a World Cup is by no means a predictable venture, requiring as it does sustained player health, favorable elimination-round match-ups, and the occasional good bounce, errant red card or well-timed opponent meltdown. But the odds of little England winning a World Cup are only going to get longer as the quadrennials march on.

Understanding that, England still could win the current tournament. Despite what the tabs are saying this morning, its players remain among the best in the world  -- “YOU MIGHT WANT TO MARK HIM,” one of my fellow USA fans in the stands screamed when Wayne Rooney received the ball in space just outside the box. “HE’S PRETTY GOOD!” -- and countries have won the World Cup with mediocre goalkeepers. None of us knows the dynamic inside the England dressing room, whether a team of exhausted Premiership stars are inspired or panicked or neither by the burden of its 50 million demanding, Red Sox-ian fans, whether their well-dressed, art-collecting coach can effect their performance on the field. But win or lose, the truth is that England fans will be saying “Well done” to us and other former colonial subjects more and more as time goes by. I, for one, will accept the compliment happily, as I did last night.