A goalkeeper for a pub or school team will know the feeling. The opposing team are advancing and – Phew! – one of their players makes the mistake of taking a ludicrously optimistic shot at goal from a long way out.
As the ball approaches your welcoming arms, you have time to think of the next move. A big punt up-field or perhaps a quick, crafty throw-out for a telling counter-attack? Suddenly and mysteriously, in defiance of all known laws of physics, the ball is through your arms and in the net behind you. It is slightly unusual to see a gaffe of this kind, known politely as conceding “a soft goal”, at an international level, as happened this week in the game between England and Croatia, but the unhappy keeper’s immediate reaction was instantly recognisable. He was infuriated – looking thunderously first at his defenders, then at the ground in front of him. Clearly, what had just happened was the fault of someone, or something, else.
It is the default position of English football, perhaps even of English life. When things go wrong, the first reaction is to look around for someone to blame. In the shark-pool of sports journalism, and down among the couch-potato managers writing their angry, know-it all blogs, rage and bitterness following this defeat will not be enough. The guilty parties will be identified. The debacle will have been the fault of a hopeless manager, or the desperate old jobsworths who run the Football Association. Perhaps the crowd, one moment booing the Croatian national anthem, the next their own team, should bear some responsibility. The pitch was a disgrace, having been ruined by American footballers three weeks ago.
None of it matters. England reeling from yet another sporting disappointment may be an ugly and depressing place but on this occasion there are reasons to take heart.
Losing can be good for the national soul. The truth is that, even in the context of a European competition, we were not good enough to be in the top 16 teams. For decades, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the illusion that, on the football field if nowhere else, we are still among the elite. What an Englishman lacks in skill and talent – suspect, self-indulgent foreign qualities – is more than compensated by his character, his indomitable will to win.
A mighty industry has been constructed to peddle this lie. It is there, assumed but unspoken, in the words of TV pundits. It lies behind the hopes and dreams, invariably dashed, of a sports-mad public. There is a platonic ideal of English football, dating from the golden year of 1966. Only a bad manager, or tactics, or luck keeps us from reaching it once more.
It is a profitable fantasy, which has made the English Premiership the richest in the world, and that wealth has exacerbated the problem. Because many of the world’s best footballers now play in this country, we have come to believe that their brilliance is somehow ours. The English Premiership is apparently the “greatest league in the world”; when a team of foreign mercenaries wearing the shirts of an English club do well in a European competition, commentators solemnly intone that they are a credit to the English game.
All this has had a terrible effect on the national psyche. We play obsessively at a sport at which we believe are entitled to succeed. Unfortunately, we are not very good at it. It is as if, every two years or so, we are forced to run at a brick wall. Rather than consider that we are taking the wrong approach, we blame the wall.
There is something joyless about the English will to win, and nothing exemplifies the grimness of true grit better that the way we introduce our children to the game of football. From the age of eight onwards, it is not skill and talent that is rewarded in competitive games but size and strength. At that age, brilliance can be kicked into touch but, as we are so often reminded, it has the last laugh in the adult game.
The failure of the English team this week, flailing and floundering under the weight of national expectation, will have a huge effect on our lives over the coming months. The feel-bad factor will quicken resentment towards Gordon Brown’s government. Businesses – pubs, toymakers, publishers, travel agents, even authors – will lose money amounting to millions.
But, when the nightmare of a European tournament without the presence of a single home team has passed, it is just possible that a new approach to football, and perhaps even more than football, may take hold in England. Not before time, we might be reminded that enjoyment, the spirit of play, not just a desperate will to win, is what matters in sport and in life.