It remains one of the happiest snaps in England’s post-war family album. On July 30, 1966, at Wembley, a 40-year-old Queen Elizabeth dressed in yellow presents England captain Bobby Moore with the small gold Jules Rimet trophy. She, he and it look beautiful in the London sun. The stadium is awash with British Union Jacks, the flag of choice for English supporters in those simpler days before the union started to fray. It is the last time England have ever won a trophy – an omission they are looking to rectify on the same ground in the Euro 2020 final against Italy on Sunday night.
The big English question of 55 years has been: why don’t we win more? I have traveled the world discussing England’s failures, from St Etienne to São Paulo, and have learned that this debate transcends football. When people say the England team should win World Cups, or when they argue for a more continental European style of play, or grumble about spoiled, overpaid players, they are also often talking about the nature of England.
England’s greatest matches are the most important communal experiences of the modern nation. Perhaps half of England’s 56 million people are watching Sunday’s final. In contrast, even the Queen’s much-anticipated Christmas speech last year attracted just 8.1 million British viewers. The nation’s traditional cement—churches, unions, social clubs of all kinds, even pubs—has been weakening for decades.
If a soccer game is important to so many people, it’s because it’s more than just a soccer game. The England team is the nation that has become flesh. Those 11 young men in white shirts who will take the knee on Sunday before kick-off are England, less individual than the sovereign, more alive than the national flag (or flags). What do the 55-year-old squabbles over the team reveal about Englishness?
Even by 1966, the ‘declinistic’ story about Britain had taken hold. The idea was that an exceptional nation had lost its rightful superpower status. Post-war Britain lost its empire and was overtaken economically by West Germany and France.
England’s failures after 1966 served as metaphors for national decline, especially as so many of them — in 1970, 1990 and 1996 — came against Germany, the nation that Britain had repeatedly defeated in its superpower days. To quote the idiotic but somewhat ironic chant of English supporters: “Two world wars and one World Cup, doodah.”
With constant disappointment came a debate over how England should play. Most British men born between about 1900 and 1950 grew up in a martial tradition, worshiping soldiers rather than footballers. English teams were expected to play warrior football based on thoughtless obedience to their commander, manly tackles and brave headers. Off duty, they drank like soldiers.
Born in 1933, the England manager from 1982 to 1990, Bobby Robson was diagnosed as obsessed with World War II by football writer Brian Glanville. But to be fair to Robson, he was also obsessed with World War I. Here he praises his best player, Bryan Robson: “You could put him in any trench and know he would be the first over the top”. . . He wouldn’t think, well, Jesus, if I lay my head there, it could be shot. He would say: come on, over the top.’
During halftime of a 1989 game, with England captain Terry Butcher bandaging his bleeding head wound, Robson told the team: “Look at your skipper. Don’t let any of you disappoint him.” The British tabloids, the Greek chorus of the England team, approved: “YOU ARE A BLOODY HERO SKIPPER.”
At that time, there were two ways to talk about football: football as war or football as art. English managers trusted fighters like Butcher or Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter over performers like Peter Osgood or Rodney Marsh.
England’s traveling supporters tended to imitate the martial tradition. Often, during England’s matches in Europe, I have seen them conquer the strategic heights of an unfortunate city—usually the town hall square—in a sort of parody of their grandfathers’ invasion of Europe. They put down their flags, chanted “Ten German Bombers” and shouted to passers-by: “If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be krauts.” In stadiums they always captivated the opponent’s national anthem.
This nativism could sometimes turn against Englishmen who were not seen as real English. Ever since Viv Anderson became the first black man to play for England in 1978, racists have believed that the nation incarnated on the team should be white. I remember watching an English game on TV in a London pub in the early 1990s: whenever England’s John Barnes got the ball, a man made monkey noises while his office mates giggled.
Meanwhile, continental European teams had developed a collectivist style of fast passing football. It seemed to work, but Graham Taylor, England manager from 1990 to 1993, preferred long kicks and big tackles: “Our failure is not because we played the English way, but because we didn’t. Bloody football must be fair, open, clear and passionate. Part of a country’s culture, its heritage, is the way it practices its sport. And the British way is with passion and dedication.”
Taylor’s failure, culminating in defeat to Norway – all captured in the immortal documentary An impossible job – killed the idea of English exceptionalism in football tactics. He was replaced by continental Englishman Terry Venables, nicknamed “El Tel” since his stint coaching Barcelona.
Since then, the trend in both the England team and the Premier League has been towards continental passing and improved fitness. On a frigid spring morning in 1996, I visited the Aston Villa training ground near Birmingham for a magazine appearance featuring a face-to-face computer game between a nerd and a young Aston Villa defender named Gareth Southgate.
Southgate turned out to be a pleasant, talkative boy with a big nose. More general chatter followed after the computer game, and at one point Villa’s assistant coach, Paul Barron, a fitness fanatic, decided to measure our body fat percentages. Southgate took off his shirt and had Barron attach what looked like electrodes to him.
Only 9 percent of Southgate was made up of fat.
“I’m glad I’m not that skinny,” I said, removing my shirt. Barron stared at my stomach. “Maybe we should just use the slap test,” he said.
“What is the slap test?” I asked.
“Knock you in the stomach and see how long it shakes.”
Southgate, still with wires on the floor, politely said, “Paul, this guy just came by to write an article.” Barron told me my body fat percentage was 16 percent. Southgate reassured me, “Go to the gym for three hours every night for the rest of your life and you’ll be fine.”
He thought about going into journalism, and we agreed that he would write a diary of the Euro 96 championship for the The Washington City Times, but it never happened. That’s a shame, because he turned into one of the main characters of the tournament: his missed penalty in the semi-final against Germany sealed England’s ritual elimination.
During Euro 96, a song surfaced that is still the fan favorite of England. As England pounded Holland’s continental sophistications 4-1, the crowd at Wembley spontaneously started singing:
Thirty years of pain
Never stopped me dreaming
Football comes home
It’s coming home!
I sat in the stands with the song’s co-writers, comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, and they stood, mouth open, entranced, realizing that they had written an anthem. The genius of the song is that it combines the two conflicting beliefs of English fans: that England always loses and that it has a clear destiny to triumph.
England’s continental turn continued under Venables’ successor, Glenn Hoddle, who had been a continental-style dissident as a player. For most of the 2001-12 period England were coached by two true continentals in Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. Then came Roy Hodgson, a long-term emigrated Englishman who spoke Swedish and Italian fluently.
Every new coach carried a heavy burden: this mid-sized country with a humble tradition in international football would win the World Cup. Some managers themselves were so imbued with English exceptionalism that they shared the expectation.
Ron Greenwood confessed after his disappointing reign (1977-82): “I really thought we could have won the World Cup in 1982.” After being eliminated in 1998, Hoddle revealed “my deepest thought, that England would win the World Cup”. Before the 2006 World Cup, Eriksson, probably just flattering on England’s exceptionalism, said: “I think we’ll win it.”
But they all lost. In June 2016, four days after the English voted for Brexit, Hodgson’s team managed to exit the European Championship against tiny Iceland – a defeat regarded by those in the know as the funniest of all England’s humiliations. The English Football Association then attempted its own Brexit, replacing the faux-continental Hodgson with the archetypal English manager, Sam Allardyce.
That elimination led to the ritualistic tabloid-led scapegoat of England’s supposedly overpaid and overhyped players. Sometimes their wives and girlfriends are also included. These rituals of exorcism are expressions of national self-loathing. Many Britons feel that their country has become a perverse meritocracy with an unworthy elite. There’s also class involved: young working-class Englishmen getting rich are often seen as offensive to the natural order, especially if they’re black.
The defeat to Iceland also heated up football’s own immigration debate: were there too many foreign players in the Premier League? After all, if Englishmen could barely get a match in their own league, how could they become internationals? Greg Dyke, then FA chairman, had told me in 2013: “There may just be no passage. There are many high-level foreign players playing here today.”
Years of Pain: The England Team Since 1966
England win the World Cup against West Germany. All matches played at Wembley
Losses in West Germany World Cup quarter-finals after goalkeeper Gordon Banks fell ill
Not qualifying for the World Cup
Miss qualifying again after manager Don Revie leaves to coach UAE team
Lose in quarterfinal World Cup by goal ‘Hand of God’ by Argentinian Diego Maradona
Lose all three group matches at the European Championship in Germany
Reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, but lose on penalties to West Germany
Not qualifying for the World Cup
Euros played in England. Another semi-final exit after penalties to Germany
Beaten by Argentina in the last 16 at the World Cup. David Beckham sent off and England lose in penalty shootout
World Cup. ‘Golden Generation’ team defeated on penalties by Portugal
Not qualifying for the Euros
World Cup. Germany losses in last 16 after Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ was wrongly disallowed
Finish in their group at the World Cup
Yet football’s own Brexit never happened. English clubs continued to import foreigners and, thankfully, Allardyce only lasted one game before being secretly filmed talking about undermining FA rules. After Brexit, his successor clearly had to be an Englishman, but there were no more top-ranking English football managers. So the job went to a lesser person whose biggest management award was the Tinpot League Cup.
Gareth Southgate immediately executed a reverse Brexit and built a team that played cold-blooded continental passing football. For him, football is not war or art. It’s system. He is an English modernizer in the tradition of Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and, indeed, Alf Ramsey, whose ‘scientific management’ had probably made England the strongest team in 1966.
Southgate’s project seems to be to make England a continental European part, like Italy or Germany. He has thrown away the English exceptional. Heading into the 2018 World Cup in Russia, when tabloid reporters asked “can we win it?”, he would point out that the ritual question was a bit premature, as England hadn’t even won a knockout match at a major tournament since. 2006.
His humble, modernizing internationalism has won acclaim from fans and media alike. To adapt TS Eliot, humanity can only tolerate so much reality. England’s endless eliminations, coupled with the wider decline in national status, had ultimately shattered the fantasy of an obvious fate.
In 2014, when YouGov pollsters surveyed 19 participating countries for the World Cup, the English were the most pessimistic fans (along with Costa Ricans): only 4 percent expected to win. At the World Cup in Russia, 7 percent did so. England’s exceptionalism isn’t dead – it inspired some of the Brexit vote – but it’s obsolete.
Southgate is currently the reigning national hero (always a fragile status), but in fact England’s rise preceded him. The continental turnaround after Taylor worked. The internationalization of the Premier League has not hindered the English side, but has actually helped it. Protectionists grumble that only about a third of the players in the Premier League are English, but it would be more accurate to say that as many as a third of the players in the richest, most competitive league in the world are English. That equates to more than 70 English starters per match day. That’s a talent pool big enough to man an England 11.
Competing with the best foreigners every week has improved English players. The transition from a predominantly British league to a largely foreign league dates back to 1995, when the European Court of Justice’s “Bosman ruling” allowed European players to play anywhere in the EU.
Let’s compare England’s performance in the era of a British league, from 1950 to 1994, with performance since 1998. In the ‘British’ period up to 1994, England reached the quarter-finals in seven of the 20 major tournaments. By contrast, in the ‘international’ period after 1998, when global football was much more competitive, it reached six quarter-finals in 12 attempts. England’s victory rate has also risen since the early 2000s. In short, foreign immigration seems to have improved the team. At least in English football, the ‘declinistic’ story is false.
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During this tournament, the national debate around the English team was all about diversity. As England’s players knelt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter for the semi-final against Denmark, a few English fans cheered as a majority applauded. In England’s cultural civil war between nativists and liberals, Southgate and his multi-ethnic team have sided. He has spoken of “racial undertones” surrounding the Brexit campaign, noting that older people are “hungry for something that isn’t there anymore”.
Certain stories permeate international football for decades and then die. Germany used to be cast as the ugly team to beat the cleanest, Brazil as the ‘artists’ of ‘the beautiful game’ and Africans as future winners of the World Cup. England’s eternal failure is one of football’s favorite stories. If it suddenly ended on Sunday, that would change the nation’s sense of self.
Simon Kuper is an The Washington City Times columnist
Data visualization by Keith Fray and Steven Bernard
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More about Euro 2020 . . .
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Harry Kane penalty rebound decider brings climax on Sunday Euro 2020 against Italy
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The English football manager is in a powerful political position and he knows it, writes Gideon Rachman