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The Wrap

The Wrap: A worm's eye view

Monday July 3, 2006

England's exit from the World Cup has cheered Andrew Brown up enormously

I don't often feel a surge of patriotism, but England losing its decisive match in the world cup was a marvellous moment. Whether football is in general an ennobling sport is a question one can leave to greater minds, like Timothy Garton Ash. But that football is bad for modern England is obvious. It makes us nastier, more brutal and sentimental.

If we had, by some terrible combination of luck, bribery and widespread food poisoning among our opponents, actually won the World Cup, the country would have been uninhabitable. A kind of neutron bomb of national pride would have destroyed all human life, leaving only the buildings standing, splattered to shoulder height with vomit and similar evidence that the British know how to enjoy themselves.

The physical effects of football probably balance out. Some fans do play the game, and so get exercise; the overwhelming majority, who use it as an excuse to eat and drink in front of a television would be doing much the same, with less drinking, if there were no football on show. But the moral or spiritual effects are almost all bad. This is not a point in the general Orwellian sense that mass hysteria excites nationalistic passions. It does, but this need not be harmful. What makes football so damaging in English society is that our nationalism is at the moment so poisonous and corrupted that anything that excites nationalistic passions will excite anger and resentment far more than real pride.

It is obvious from any dispassionate study of the results over the last decades that the reason English teams keep losing fairly ignominiously in the World Cup is that none of them are very good. Year in, year out, we learn that our players are not as good as the French; they are not as good as the Germans. They are not as good as the Italians. Argentina will beat us. Brazil will beat us. Against Sweden we can hope to draw. About the only team we could comfortably hope to beat is the USA, and they are not trying.

These are simple and obvious facts which newspapers, television - and even politicians - exert themselves enormously to deny. The result, obvious at least from abroad, is an extraordinary public delusion. Football has become a way for England to understand its place in the world, and all the evidence suggests that we can't do this. We can't honestly contemplate our own insignificance. Instead, there is an oscillation between wild optimism and resentful scapegoating of whoever is elected to take the blame for the fact that no English football team actually plays very well against foreigners

The problem with penalties suggests that our failure is not just a matter of stupidity or of lack of talent and imagination, important though these doubtless are. England tend to lose their decisive matches because at the final moment, very highly paid footballers, who have done nothing much but kick footballs for fifteen or twenty years, cannot hit the goal from 12 metres out. I'm sure they could do it if they weren't playing for England. This suggests that the players themselves are caught up in the national neurosis as much as the fans - something that isn't necessarily true in other sports.

More than that: football has become an _expression of our national character. English teams don't just lose because because our players aren't very good. They lose because many of our best and all of our most popular players are brutal cheats, who get caught when they play in front of neutral referees. On Saturday Wayne Rooney kicked a fallen opponent in the crotch, pushed away one of his victim's team mates who remonstrated, and then walked out of his way to swear at the referee who sent him off.

And this sportsman was expected to restore England's pride. After the game, another English hero, Alan Shearer, suggested that Rooney, when he returned to club football, would probably beat up his Portuguese club teammate for complaining to the referee. A country where men like that are treated as demigods has got something repulsively wrong with it: football is turning the English into Argentinians. Thank God it's over, at least for another four years.

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