Tonight England vs Brazil at Wembley marks the start of the FA’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations. Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman argues that it is the perfect time to lower our expectations of England’s chances.
England vs Brazil, friendly or no friendly, is a tasty international fixture to mark the start of the Football Association’s 150th birthday celebrations. It will be a feast of free-flowing football, and England. Never mind, with the other home opponents lined up so far the Republic of Ireland (last qualified for a World Cup in 2002, at Euro 2012 failed to win a single game) and Scotland (last qualified for any tournament, 1998) England fans should be able to look forward to some home victories to savour. Although what exactly the players, manager and coaches will learn by playing such relatively lowly opposition is anyone’s guess. These opponents have been chosen to put bottoms on seats, and stir up memories of old, and more recent rivalries, but never mind the quality of the football.
Meantime Brazil are not only the 5-times winners of the World Cup, and hosts of the 2014 tournament; they also single-handedly invented what Pele famously dubbed ‘the beautiful game’. Or as Brazil international, doctor, philosopher and left-wing political activist Socrates poetically put it, “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.” Words which, naturally have been turned into a Philosophy Football T-shirt available here.
Brazil have had their own problems – a disappointing semi-final defeat at World Cup 2010 following their Quarter Final exit at World Cup 2006. This is a team however whose high expectations are based on recent success: winning the tournament in 2002, that semi-final in 2010, finalists in 1988 is all a lot more recent than anything England has achieved – I’m sorry, I don’t count England getting to a semi-final in ‘96 when we are the tournament hosts.
The period since Euro 96 has been a successful one for the England team, relatively speaking. Every tournament, except Euro 2008, was qualified for. This compares well with the 1990s when England failed to qualify for World Cup 94, the 1980s when the team failed to qualify for Euro 84 and the dismal 1970s with failures to qualify for the World Cup in both 1974 and 1978. The much maligned Sven Goran Eriksson took England to three consecutive quarter final stages, in 2002, 2004 and 2006. The latter two lost on penalties, while at World Cup 2002 England lost to the eventual winners of the tournament, tonight’s opponents Brazil. Very few England managers have come close to match Sven’s achievement. Roy Hodgson has started well too, surprising many by taking England to the top of their group at Euro 2012 and going out on penalties to Italy in the quarter-finals. Not bad, but not good enough many England fans would argue, with the 47-year old memories of 1966 still fresh in the nation’s memory. Yet as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue in their provocatively titled book Why England Lose comparatively speaking, in terms of England’s size of population and number of professional players, getting into the top eight of the World’s teams is a considerable achievement. It’s just that England’s national psyche, which is largely impossible to separate from the legacy of empire, the martial history and having invented most of the world’s sports, expects to win trophies and nothing much else will do.
Up to World Cup 2010 the popular support for the England team was huge. Every other summer the country would be decked out in St. George Cross flags. Beckham helped football reach a wider audience in the way Gazzamania did before him at Italia 90. And the team resembled serious enough contenders not to lose all hope that when they got knocked out that they might at least do better the next time. The linkage, often unfairly made, of following England with hooliganism also pretty much ended after Euro 2000 with every tournament since then England fans coming home feted for their friendliness.
World Cup 2010 pretty much dented all of this. The team was arguably the strongest since 1996. With Wayne Rooney we had a world-class player in our starting eleven. The spine of the team was looking good too from Ashley Cole at the back, Lampard and Gerrard in midfield. Plus the promise Theo Walcott had shown with his hat-trick against Croatia in the qualifying campaign. The sorry exit at the hands of Germany, losing 4-1, at the last sixteen stage following a series of dismal group games put paid to all of that pent-up optimism. The turmoil over John Terry, his manager, Fabio Capello’s, resignation over the way the FA was treating the matter, his awkward reinstatement, widely perceived as at the expense of Rio Ferdinand, and the apppintment of Roy Hodgson as manager had left pre-Euro 2012 interest at an all-time low. Yes England can still fill Wembley, as it will do tonight, and count on a size of support that dwarfs most other European countries, home and away. But in terms of the much bigger broader audience, with a St. George Cross flying out of every other car window, worn as a T-shirt and daubed on kids’ faces, there was precious little of this during last year’s Euro 2012. The TV viewing figures were impressive enough but this was more a case of going through the motions from the comfort of the sofa; there was little of the magnitude of the spectacle of London 2012. In last year’s summer of sport, from Chelsea winning the Champions League, via Wiggo winning Le Tour, to Europe’s victory in the Ryder Cup and Andy Murray ending the British Tennis version of the years of hurt in New York, well England at the Euros hardly merits even a footnote.
And the immediate future doesn’t look much brighter either. A qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup which had looked easy turned awkward almost from the start. The away qualifier against Montenegro (total population around the size of the London Borough of Hammersmith) has all of a sudden turned into a must-win game; the last time England were there in 2011 we scrambled a draw. And even if England do get to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup the expectations which were low enough for Euro 2012 are likely to be lower still. Meanwhile England will around the same time be hosting the first three days of the Tour de France. A decent performance this year by Wiggo, Cavendish and Froome could leave the previously unrivalled ascendancy of England’s tournament campaign shaping the sporting summer severely dented, if not irreparably damaged,for the second time in three years.
So enjoy the game, but give a thought to the sport’s future as the goals rain in, hopefully in the back of Brazil net, not ours. Optimism cannot be entirely extinguished, otherwise what’s the point of being a fan? However getting used to being around the 8th best team in the world probably isn’t quite how those organising the FA’s centenary in 1963 envisaged the following fifty years through to 2013. A decent performance at the 1962 World Cup, yes once again losing a quarter-final, and spookily it was to Brazil once more, the eventual tournament winners that year too, was the cause of some hope. And they would have been looking forward as well to hosting the World Cup three years later in 1966 with the emerging talent of a youthful Bobby Moore suggesting this team had some considerable promise. Today there is precious little optimism, the crop of young players coming through look decent enough but well-short of being world beaters so far at any rate. The public excitement around the England team will take something really special in the difficult conditions of Brazil to restore it to anything like its previous scale. Still, if we finish the year having beaten Scotland at Wembley, plenty will be happy enough. Maybe actually the FA’s 150th anniversary fixture list is inspired after all, by the management of low expectations?
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters’ of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football.