How important is it to you that your country succeeds on the football pitch?
And what would World Cup success mean to you?
The announcement of the England squad for the tournament raised this question for me.
Surrounded by English hype about the Ashley Cole-less 23 I was in a fortunate work position of being able to treat it as simply the latest of 32 squads. Interesting, without it being a major story.
But should it be a big deal to me as an Englishman and a football fan. Does national success mean anything to me anymore?
The childhood excitement of England’s participation in tournament football never leaves you. By that I mean the nostalgia stays with you, not that I have childish excitement for England’s 2014 bid. Some do, and I envy them that in a way.
My first TV World Cup was 1978 and with England having failed to make it to Argentina, I had a ready-made replacement in Scotland. The team featured my childhood hero Kenny Dalglish. Don’t try to explain England-Scotland rivalry to a 6 year-old with his favourite player on the pitch. Having been allowed to stay up late. The imperfect TV satellite pictures and distinctive audio was a wonderful thing.
From the ’82 tournament, the pattern was set. Hope of English progress, tantalising possibilities, ultimate failure, but enough pride in performance and plenty of better teams to enthrall.
This was an era where live coverage of football was hardly at saturation levels. An England game was a major event. Friendlies meant something, caps meant everything to some. Representing one’s county, captaining it even, was the ultimate accolade, not club success.
And the personal proof of that came in 1988. Never have I been more over-excited about an England goal than when Bryan Robson burst through to equalise against the Netherlands in European Championship in Germany. It was ultimately futile, but the goal had me on my knees punching the air with relief. Yet there was no player I hated more in club football than Robson, simply because of of his achievements for my team’s rivals. Often against us.
We are now in an era when club loyalties are infinitely harder to ignore, along with disdain from the public over some of the personalities in the national team. John Terry and the captaincy debacle going into the last World Cup poisoned the England support pool and was remarkably close to spoiling the tournament for some fans.
But much of the damage to national pride had been for me before that. The unequivocal support for England teams – Glenn Hoddle’s of ’98 being the best I’ve seen – was eroded by a new era.
The Premier League reared its head in 1992 and took English club football to a lofty position, the Champions League set new standards and the national team? Well perhaps the biggest setback to the England team came from a move that looked so reasonable and positive.
Appointing a foreign coach in 2001 was accepted to the extent any doubting Thomases, like me, were considered practically xenophobic for calling it a shame. And it was a humiliation in my view. World sport was less sophisticated then, and the big nations were still managed by ‘one of their own’.
Sven-Goran Erikssen was a quiet disaster. A man who should take much of the blame for his meek management in 2002, leading to a pathetic exit against a Brazilian team surprisingly there for the taking. In subsequent big tournaments England didn’t fare much better. People pointed to his strong qualification record. But they pointed more often to his muddled ‘love life’ as tabloids called it. All the while the England team was losing its identity.
Wembley was missed too, during a rebuilding period. Good to take England games around the country but it was never quite the same. When the new stadium sprung up, the expectancy to win had gone. Less established football nations had caught up with England.
And now we have Roy’s 23. An announcement enlivened by Keme Nzerem of Channel 4 news in the UK. (@nzerem_c4). With the announcement rather distastefully made at a car garage, Keme took the car and drove it by asking Hodgson if his England team were like the Vauxhall in question: ‘ordinary.’
Uncomfortable for Hodgson and mainly because of the accuracy of the analogy. This isn’t a squad to win a World Cup, nor really challenge for it. Ashley Cole may be unpopular off the pitch but he is England’s only world class player of the past decade. To drop him was unnecessary, Shaw’s time will come. But Hodgson can’t be blamed for the lack of overall quality and should be applauded for picking exciting young talent such as Barkley and Sterling.
Unlike most English journalists I won’t be attached to England in Brazil, my Al Jazeera work will take me across Brazil as the tournament unfolds. But how will I feel about the England results?
Can anything take me back to the thrill of 1990? From the moment England fans heard New Order’s classic ‘World in Motion’ the tournament fever kicked in. The team started poorly, momentum built towards the unforgettable operatic drama of the semi-final. Gascoigne’s tears to follow his brilliance. Heartbreak but an enthralling journey through Belgium and Cameroon and the classic semi-final.
This time round the World Cup theme song is a cover of an old Take That song. Says a lot. It’s like there’s not enough belief in the team to make the effort for an original song.
But with a tough group and low expectations maybe a special moment will arrive and ignite a World Cup journey. A spectacular goal, a penalty save. Something to stir the fans. After the turgid 2006 and 2010 efforts they need something to actually register as memorable.
The anticipation and enthusiasm will build rapidly now. The flags willl be hung from windows and cars, the stickers will be swapped, the England team will dominate conversation in workplaces and schools. All over the globe. But there will also be those for who are beyond caring. Blatter and Platini may still have faith in international football, but support is no longer a given.
Journalist friend Stuart Silvers is fond of a fascinating claim: The England football team have NEVER won a knockout match in a major tournament against one of the biggest football nations. Away from England. Have a think about it, it’s true.
But it shouldn’t stop fans from dreaming. One day I look forward to rejoining their ranks.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport