The England team is a strange animal. They are some of the best-paid professionals in a game pretty much every bloke in this part of the world has played at some point of their lives, supported by tens of millions of fanatics, with the best kit, technology, and coaching staff money can buy.
There are one or two unwritten rules for England games however, which prevent the team reaching the potential fans seem certain they have before every average performance.
Firstly, however dismal the opposition, we will not slaughter them. Germany played San Marino in 2006 and won 13-0; this is not the English way. With the money the players earn for each game, it would be stupid to offend an entire nation by thrashing their finest eleven- suppose one of the team wanted to go on holiday there later? For this reason, it is altogether more intelligent (not to mention polite) to just brush minor teams aside. With this in mind, we make efforts not to score more than two against teams like Andorra, and kindly fail to score at all in Macedonia and other cheap tourist destinations.
Secondly, players who dazzle most weekends in the Premiership will go out of their way to look average on the world stage. Take Ashley Cole for example. Knowing all other left back options have been unmitigated disasters (Wayne Bridge against Croatia last year anyone?), he’d be stupid to wear himself out playing for his part-time teammates, and would do far better to relax a bit midweek and concentrate on his game at Chelsea. Not that he’s been particularly dazzling there recently either, but at least he hasn’t been quite so careless.
Thirdly, no matter how easy it will probably be to score if they try, England teams will insist on playing the possession game on the half way line, without really trying to go forwards too much. Everyone knows how Arsenal are respected for their ball-retention. What better way to show your credibility on the world stage than to pass it endlessly around your back four, with the opposition never even getting near the ball!? Obviously Arsenal do it over a bit more of the park, but we can build up to that slowly.
Linked into this is the default game- pumping a long ball up to Rooney (5’10”) or Emile Heskey when it gets a bit desperate. The possession on the half way line may be a good way to come off at the end and point knowingly at a statistic saying we had 73% of the ball, but inevitably at some point we’re going to have to give the fans what they want and at least pretend to be trying to score. It’s a lot quicker to ignore the midfielders and just hoof it up to the forwards. It may not always work, but at least we don’t have to think about it. Hurrah.
Finally though, there is the most important rule for an England player, England fan, or member of the press: England is just a hair’s breadth away from being the best team in the world. They must be, they’re English. Ignoring previous tournaments where semi-finals were considered appropriate and quarter-final exits a disgrace, England has the best league in the world (you don’t have to have actually seen others to know this), is the “home of football”, and is therefore able to be the best team. The only thing holding us back is normally managerial incompetence, overpaid lazy players or dirty defensive tactics by our opponents. You cannot mention our tactical naivety on the ball, or our general lack of cutting edge in the opposition half- we are obviously one of the best, because we’d really like it if we were.
Supporting England is a strange game. It’s often boring, often heart-breaking, and you normally reckon you could do a better job yourself. But every now and then they score four or five, and you get that little bit of hope up again. Come on England!
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