The nation prepares for failure with a well-worn strategy

By Simon Kuper

When England get knocked out of this World Cup, an ancient ritual will unfold. Perfected over England's previous 13 failures to win the tournament away from home, it follows this pattern:

Phase one: certainty that England will win the World Cup. Sir Alf Ramsey, the only English manager to win the trophy, at home in 1966, forecast victory. However, his prescience becomes less impressive when you realise that almost every England manager thinks he will win the trophy, including Ramsey in the two campaigns he didn't. When his team were knocked out in 1970 he was stunned, and said: "We must now look ahead to the next World Cup in Munich where our chances of winning I would say are very good indeed." England didn't qualify for that one.

Glenn Hoddle, England's manager in 1998, revealed only after his team had been knocked out "my innermost thought, which was that England would win the World Cup".

In the face of all evidence, much of the public shares the delusion. It is a hangover from empire: England is football's mother country and should, therefore, win. The sociologist Stephen Wagg notes: "In reality, England is a country like many others and the England football team is a football team like many others." This truth has never sunk in.

Two: During the tournament England face a former wartime enemy. In five of their last six World Cups, they were knocked out by either Germany or Argentina. The matches fit seamlessly into the British tabloid view of history, except for the outcome.

Three: The English conclude that the game turned on one freakish piece of bad luck that could happen only to them. Joe Gaetjens, a dishwasher, scored the US's winner against England in 1950 when the ball seemed to hit his head accidentally. In 1970 England's goalkeeper Gordon Banks had an upset tummy and his deputy, Peter Bonetti, let in three soft German goals. In 1990 and 1998 England lost on penalties. In 2002 everyone knew the obscure Brazilian kid Ronaldinho must have mishit the free-kick that sailed into England's net, because he obviously wasn't good enough to have scored it deliberately.

Four: Moreover, everyone else cheated. Latin American crowds in 1950 and 1970 deliberately wasted time while England were losing by keeping the ball in the stands. The CIA (some say) drugged Banks. Diego Maradona's "hand of God" scored for Argentina in 1986. Diego Simeone playacted for Argentina 12 years later to get David Beckham sent off. And every referee opposes England.

Five: England are knocked out without getting anywhere near lifting the cup. The only exception was 1990, when they reached the semi-final. Otherwise they have always gone out when still needing to defeat at least three excellent teams.

Six: The day after elimination, normal life resumes. The one exception is 1970, when England's elimination arguably caused Labour's surprise defeat in the general election four days later.

Seven: A scapegoat is selected. The scapegoat is never an outfield player who has "fought" all match. Even if he caused defeat by missing a penalty, he is a "hero". Beckham was scapegoated for the 1998 defeat only because he got sent off after 46 minutes. He took so much abuse, he recalled later, that "I've got a little book in which I've written down the names of those people who upset me the most. I don't want to name them because I want it to be a surprise when I get them back."

Often the scapegoat is a management figure: Wright as captain in 1950, Joe Mears as chief selector in 1958 and many managers since. Sometimes it is a keeper, who just stood around rather than fighting. Bonetti spent the rest of his career enduring chants of "You lost the World Cup". Only after a defeat to Brazil is no scapegoat sought, because defeats to Brazil are considered acceptable.

Eight: England enter the next World Cup thinking they will win it. "I think we will win it," their manager Sven-Göran Eriksson said last month. Given that England may well face Germany in the round of 16, and/or Argentina in the quarter-finals, they probably won't.

The World Cup as ritual has a meaning beyond football. Usually the elimination is the most watched British television programme of the year. It, therefore, educates the English in two contradictory narratives about their country: one, that England has a manifest destiny to triumph, and two, that it never does. The genius of "Three Lions", English football's unofficial anthem, is that it combines both narratives: "Thirty years of hurt/Never stopped me dreaming."

There is an alternative universe in which Beckham didn't kick Simeone, Banks didn't get ill, the referee spotted Maradona's handball and so on. In that universe England have won about seven World Cups. The English think they would have preferred that. But it would have deprived them of a ritual that marks the passing of time much like Christmas, and that celebrates a certain idea of England: a land of unlucky heroes, who no longer rule the world although they should.




June 2006

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