England Should Play a Game of Low Expectations

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.

Philosophy Football t shirtEngland 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.

Philosophy Football t shirt backThe 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.

19 comments on “England Should Play a Game of Low Expectations

  1. Sneering Cynic on said:

    The ‘Beautiful Game’? Pah!

    A bunch of overpaid morons spending 90 minutes kicking a ball round a patch of green grass for a country that hasn’t existed for over 200 years is not of the slightest interest.

    The REAL ‘Beautiful Game’ starts at 2 Savoy Place, London on 15th March, when 8 of the world’s finest get to test out real stamina and the powers of the mind by playing daily against each other over 14 games of 4-6 hours each to see who challenges for the world championship. One momentary slip in dozens of hours of play and it will be curtains.
    ‘The Best Mind Wins’
    ‘Country’ doesn’t matter. That’s what I call a game. You can even get a t-shirt for that too but no moronic shouting will be permitted.

  2. Karl Stewart on said:

    Hi Mark,
    Great article (apologies I couldn’t make it to the Stalingrad evening – hope it went well?)

    Anyway, couple of points on the article. It’s true England’s “natural” position in international football is around the top eight. – in World Cups and Euros, losing quarter finalists in 1954, 62, 70, 72, 82, 86, 2002, 04, 06 and 2012.

    Losing semi finalists only three times – 1968, 1990 and 96, and only that one ever final.

    So expectations should be low – we’re OK but just not that good and that’s the way it’s more or less always been apart from that brief mid-1960s blip.

    Statistics prove conclusively that England can only be successful with the following:

    1. West Ham players in three of the four critical positions – central defence, central midfield, and striker.
    2. The best keeper in the world in that fourth critical position.
    3. A West Ham captain.
    4. A home tournament.
    5. A linesman who doesn’t like Germans and referees who don’t like south Americans.
    6. A Labour government.

    So, not for a while then!

  3. secret factioneer on said:

    “They”, AN? You aren’t becoming one of those middle-class types who doesn’t wave the flag, are you?

  4. #6 & 7 Hating to appear like one of those self-hating ‘internationalists’ I dislike so much but Karl mate, this is a friendly!

  5. I think my laptop’s screen is being lit solely by Karl’s excitement.

    Too much to ask for an article on the Six Nations?

  6. Brazilian flags out in force round here earlier. Glad to say not a single England one. The neanderthals must have stayed in their caves. Shame about the result though. :-(

  7. red snapper:
    Can’t see any references to England or football in your link. I did have a cat called Karl years back though.

    Ditto, although at the time I didn’t realise it was for political reasons. :P

    (The other one was called Leon. I never had a chance.)

    You honestly think though, that if you saw an England flag up somewhere – during an England football game! – it must be a ‘neanderthal’ behind it? Because if that’s the case, the cavemen are EVERYWHERE. As in, there’s too many for you to fight. Time to just give up. Etc.

  8. Quite how a self appointed ‘red snapper’ can classify the appearance of Brazil flags as unifornly joyful while the appearance of a single England flag the sign of the ‘neanderthal’ unfortunately tells me all I need ro know about the moral bankrupty of some sections of a middle-class dominated Left. Thanks.

    Mark P

  9. Quite how a self appointed ‘red snapper’ can classify the appearance of Brazil flags as unifornly joyful while the appearance of a single England flag the sign of the ‘neanderthal’ unfortunately tells me all I need ro know about the moral bankrupty of some sections of a middle-class dominated Left. Thanks.

    I agree with this. Red Snapper has frequently made these claims, and only ever mentions England flags while insulting the people who use them. Sure, he has encountered and “dealt with” racists who happened to have flags, but to call anyone who flies an England flag a “neanderthal” shows a snobbishness that borders on idiocy.

    Round here, there are loads of England flags flying during major football events – and they’re flown by local Bengali lads. They’re not neanderthals. And I’m fairly certain that they’re more authentically working class than the people who condemn them. What would you like to say to these lads’ faces? Do you think you’ll convince them that flying the flag is wrong? Do you even think you should try? Why?

    “Red Snapper”, you’ve got the politics of this badly wrong. The flag can, and often is, a sign of unhealthy politics. But every sneery comment you’ve made about it (including the “cave man-like grunts” in the post I linked to above) shows that you make really bad assumptions about people based upon the flag they fly. See, if your tenants’ association was really politically active and winning concessions from the council, that’s fantastic – and if, as you say, the residents “approached you” and said they felt intimidated by the racist behaviour of the flag-flying tenants, that’s also fantastic and shows a sense of community.

    But equally, you’ve completely undermined your case by associating the flag with the racism. And your comment above, which calls everyone who flies an England flag a “neanderthal”, makes you someone who is so politically naive, you have no idea how to actually tackle racism (as opposed to individual acts of racist behaviour).

    Personally, I’d rather have tried to approach these “cave men” you spoke about, seen if I could get them involved in the estate and community, seen if there was a way to harness racist energy for non- and even anti- racist causes. Cos if we want to change society, we’re not gonna do it by exposing and reporting racists.

    I had this argument in the SWP, when we had an awkward case of a Muslim who was the victim of some rumours spread by some very popular drivers in my depot. It was obvious that the way to deal with it was to try to explore and undermine the racism behind the rumours, but the SWP organiser said my job was to “expose” the racists and get the employer to take disciplinary action against them; that’s the way you handled your racist neighbours. But in the real world, if those guys had been sacked for racism, it would’ve made previously ambivalent people come down on their side – my method worked perfectly: I was able to change the racists’ opinions and behaviour, and was able to win a lot of respect cos I did it all without involving management – there was a deeper understanding of Islamophobia as a result in my workplace, and all in all that one set of actions did more to change people’s perceptions than any disciplinary action would ever have done – not just that, but had I “exposed” the racists, you can be damned sure no one would ever have trusted me to help with legitimate problems again.

    If you adopt a position of “flag wavers = racists”, then you’ve got a major problem ever dealing with working class people. Me, I can do it without ever pandering to racism. We start from accepting that people are a mass of messy contradictions, and we have to simply take people seriously.

    If people start off from your position, you’re gonna end up completely isolated from the actual working class.

    I tell you what, why not come into my workplace and say what you’ve said here? See how many discussions you win.

    The problem with the left is, it talks to itself. It is entirely possible to be the hardest, most marxistic militant ever, without also being a headbanger who demands that everyone else is pure. I’ve never given one inch to racism but I’ve won more arguments and respect and changed more people’s minds than any amount of reporting people to the council (as you do) will ever achieve.

  10. That’s a great quote from Socrates bit like Danny Blanchflowers quote ““Football is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom”
    Maybe, I’m not a typical England fan, but while I love seeing England do well if the team who beat us play good football then I don’t mind too much. And I think that goes for a lot of people. There was a BBC prog about 10-15 years ago that asked people to vote for the best goal ever from a shortlist that included Maradona against England, Carlos Alberto in the 70 final etc. The winner was the Maradona goal despite it knocking out England and coming shortly after the hand of god goal. However, the win at all costs people are a noisy lot and get quite hysterical at times. I remember Bobby Robson getting pelters as England manager from the media but after the 1990 World Cup he was a national treasure all of a sudden.

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