To say that everyone has grown tired of the England team would be an overstatement. Almost everyone is frustrated and disillusioned with them, but the nation is not quite consumed by total indifference.
Though they may be tougher to find than they were ten or twenty years ago, there are still those who see the march to Wembley and beyond as an act of necessary patriotism and that’s probably to be applauded. Of course, among that group there is a less admirable minority who intersperse the national anthem with bursts of “no surrender…”, but resistance to the apathy still exists.
Still, where did the overwhelming sense of ennui come from?
The simple answer, of course, is that it’s bred from the crapness. Decades of under-achievement have chiselled away at the public’s enthusiasm and now, like someone whose heart has been broken one too many times, we just can’t bring ourselves to love again.
That explanation obviously has some merit, but it’s probably on the shallow side. England haven’t looked like winning anything for a long time and haven’t actually won anything for even longer, but there isn’t a true correlation between declining performance and rising disinterest. Or, at least, there isn’t conclusive proof that the side’s protracted failure is the definitive animating grievance.
Instead, it’s the type of failure which has created the emotional distance.
England, as a football nation, used to specialise in a certain type of defeat. Nobody under the age of sixty has experienced anything other than disappointment and yet, as recently as the 1990s, the national football team used to stir emotions that it now seems incapable of touching.
Sometimes it was love, sometimes hate; either way, it used to inspire something. Now, England offer little more than a way of gently releasing the valve on the public’s facetiousness. That’s all you hear at Wembley. Other than the affected speech of the tannoy man, the high-pitched chatter of children, and the sad drone of the England band, the air is thick with indifference.
That’s a reflection on what England have become rather than what they’ve failed to be. For the generation between twenty-five and forty, watching the national team used to involve something glorious. They would lose, generally in agonising, cruel ways, but they wouldn’t lose their self-respect in the process. The exits at Italia ’90, Euro ’96, and France ’98 were all heartbreaking in the same gut-punching way, but in each case those teams fought bravely against the dying of the light and departed those tournaments on their shield.
And that is what’s missing: Englishness is a tainted word in today’s multicultural society and it’s associated with all sort of social evils, but – in football terms – it encompassed a lot of admirable qualities. English football was fearless, hard-working and it was typified by a refusal to know its place. It had heart.
From Euro 2000 onwards, England have acquired the irritating habit of conforming to expectation. There’s no rage anymore, no seething desire to disprove the critics; tournament after tournament, they just fall limply on their own sword at the first opportunity.
On the one hand, self-awareness is very important. English football made too many assumptions about itself for too long and its “we invented the game” mentality has been at least partly responsible for its slide down the sport’s hierarchy.
So, no, institutional arrogance doesn’t lead to anything good.
But some of that – a dash – was healthy. Tenuous though it may sound, that absurd level of self-regard seemed to bleed into the team and for a long time it appeared to fuel some of those gloriously unsuccessful fights. By contrast, England now behave like the scolded dog of the international game. Burdened by self-pity and their spirit broken by the realisation that they aren’t as talented as the elite nations, they are relentlessly accepting of their own place.
Fittingly, a succession of managers have abandoned the native style and replaced it with a weak imitation of whatever’s fashionable on the continent and the consequence, inevitably, has been a near total loss of identity.
“Better not line-up like this, better not play like that – what if the world laughs at us? What if they sneer at our fast-paced football and direct wing-play?”
And so how can you love something which neither has any conviction in itself nor any discernible soul? Why would you invest in something when it’s not really clear what, if anything, it represents.
They’ve always been losers, but they’re not our losers anymore.