The very English nature of our expectations creates the illusion of chronic failure

There is a peculiar tendency in Britain (maybe just in England) which insists that nothing but the best is good enough. The government wants the NHS to be “the best in the world”. Our millen­nium celebrations were supposed to be “the envy of the world”.

The same overweening ambition applies to England’s football team. At no time before Euro 2000 did Kevin Keegan say that he hoped England might get to the knockout stages or simply give a good account of themselves. Instead, when pressed on his team’s chances, alone among all the national team coaches at Euro 2000 he stressed over and over again that “if everything went right for us, we could win it”.

And, of course, when England fail at something, the same self-flagellating reactions are in evidence. For pensioners expiring in hospital corridors read the wobbly new bridge across the Thames and Phil Neville’s inability to make a clean tackle. Yet again England are a “shambles” (Mirror) and “shameful” (Mail on Sunday).

In truth they were poor, but they’ve been worse, like in 1980, 1988 and 1992. They were involved in two great games and one terrible one, which is a better return than at any previous European championship. They have some good players and some mediocre ones – and essentially the same squad that clinched qualification for France 98 with a goalless draw against Italy in Rome in October 1997. Yes, all English players would benefit from better coaching and the tactics they’re required to follow are unsophisticated and inflexible, but they came within a couple of minutes of getting through to the quarter-finals and that would have been a reasonable ach­ievement. If only the expectations were not so high in the first place, the feeling of betrayal in the aftermath would not be so bitter.

Off the field some of the same extremes are apparent. For too many of the fans who follow the national team, going abroad is about asserting England’s superiority – not necessarily with violence, but with songs and aggressive behaviour that is meant to be (and is) intimidating to the locals. And when there is trouble, the “shambles” and “shame” of it all leave England wallowing in self-recrimination. It seems we can’t imagine a relationship with the rest of Europe (in football or anything else) that does not involve either conquest or humiliation.

As with the team, the trouble in Belgium was, in some ways, not as bad as it looked. Alongside the chair throwers of Charleroi, it seems that hundreds of English fans were wrongly detained and deported shortly after their arrival in the country. But when the actions of a large minority among England’s travelling support are so objectionable, innocent supporters will always be tainted by association.

Behind the lurid headlines, there were some small signs of progress at Euro 2000. It now seems there is a distinct travelling fan culture developing which has little to do with the mind-numbing nationalism of England’s hool­­igan and sub-hooligan followers. Anecdotal evidence and the presence of League club flags at matches not invol­v­ing England suggest that there was a large number of English fans, possibly more than from any other visiting coun­try, attending Euro 2000 as neutrals.

However, it is hard to believe that the destructive psychological rollercoaster of England’s trips abroad will change significantly until there is a more fundamental shift in mainstream attitudes to other countries. To the undisguised glee of the opposition, the government’s big idea to deal with this is a series of authoritarian measures that might prevent those already convicted of violence, or perhaps merely suspected of it, from travelling to England games abroad. But their response springs from a lazy failure to acknowledge or confront xenophobic stereotypes that have infected the mainstream.

The absurdly vain posturing of Tony Adams with his quotes from Henry V, lapped up by all the papers before the tournament, was a mild example of such warped sensibilities. Far worse were the Dreamcast advertisements run during the finals by the computer games company Sega, featuring crass stereotypes of the Germans, French and Spanish (though no doubt they would claim it was all “ironic”). 

We will only know that hooliganism begun to be effectively tackled when the ITV sports department no longer think it’s a good idea to play The Great Escape theme after a game in which England have beaten Germany.

From WSC 162 August 2000. What was happening this month

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