Tuesday, 22 June 2010

English jouissance

Charles gets to the heart of English national jouissance - the way that we take pleasure (albeit a mean, miserable, grumbling sort of pleasure) in pain. We're back exactly where we want to be, with our backs against the wall, with just enough hope to make the pain exquisite. (I must confess to a certain measure of disappointment when England qualified from the group stage with ease in 2006 - where was the jouissance in that? Never mind - we still had the indifferent performances to moan at.) It's a classic case of finding satisfaction in the ostensible blocking of a desire. So far, the England team - like the policeman in The Wicker Man - have played their parts in this national carnival of defeatism perfectly, if, necessarily, unwittingly. The test now is whether they can disappoint us by starting to play well.
I'm pleased to hear that John Terry's challenge to Capello's authority has reputedly gone down badly with the rest of the England squad. The Times argued that Terry isn't as popular in the squad as he'd like to think he is - which says something for the rest of the players' judgement. Terry is tabloid thinking incarnate, and it's heartening that his attempt to curry populist favour didn't come off. The assertion of player power under Sven had predictably poor results; and I for one have more faith in Capello's tactical intelligence than that of England players who were consistently under-achieving at international level while Capello was winning championships with some of Europe's top clubs. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has enjoyed seeing the swaggering egos of England's players reined in by Don Fabio's disciplinarian regime.
The growing discontent with Capello - led by Andy Townsend on television - has taken a predictably xenophobic turn, although the thinking seems particularly confused, even by the standards of xenophobia. As ever, the xenophobic complaint seem to revolve around the issue of "passion". Now, it was easy for the pundits to complain about of lack of passion from Sven because this fitted the stereotypical image the English have of Swedes. But it's a problem trying to make such complaints marry with the stereotypical image of Italians, not to mention Capello's animation on the touchline. So now the complaint seems to be that only an Englishman can muster the requisite passion to manage the national side. As Townsend disgracefully remarked on ITV the other day, "Capello will be in Lake Garda in a few months, what does he care?" (Did being born in Maidstone, Kent and never living in Ireland prevent Townsend from being sufficiently passionate when he played for the Republic, I wonder?) And anyone who thinks that "passion" will cure England's malady need only remember the pathetic sight of Kevin Keegan making those puff-up-your-chest gestures on the touchline as a shambolic England were easily beaten by Germany at Wembley.
As Giovanni pointed out in the comments, England's problem is not a deficiency of passion or effort, much as it looks that way. There's an uncanny quality about England performances like the one against Algeria. The team have an underwater lethargy, almost as if they are subject to a higher gravity than the opposition, prematurely exhausting them. While the opponents skip about, easily finding passes, England lumber, the ball bobbling awkwardly off their feet, the options for the player with the ball narrowing every second until even a simple square pass becomes impossible. (For those who say England play to their level at the World Cup - can they remember a time when Lampard, Gerrard or Rooney played remotely as badly for their club?) A curious attitude of desperate hope and fatalistic despair takes hold of the team. The blustering attacks that the odd player manages to muster seem destined to fail, as if they run up against an invisible forcefield. You know that they won't score, but you can't stop hoping that they will. Other international teams play badly, but there's a particular quality about England's bad performances. England have put in performances like that under every manager for as long as I can remember. As I've remarked before, why this is the case poses all sort of interesting questions - about the nature of a psychology that is not only collective, but that repeats itself over time with completely different personnel. But it's confidence, not passion, that breaks England out of this fugue - will they be able to muster that confidence tomorrow? A quick goal, and we could see a repeat of England's demolition of Poland in the third game in 1986, but the longer the game goes on without a breakthrough, the greater the chance that The Fear will creep back in . . .


  1. For those who say England play to their level at the World Cup - can they remember a time when Lampard, Gerrard or Rooney played remotely as badly for their club?

    Ah, but that's the crux of the matter, isn't it - how do you define "playing well", and disambiguate it from "play with confidence", and further disambiguate how much of this confidence has to do with the stakes of the game, and how much is just an automatic reflex that develops along with your skills?

    There is a piece of research I wanted to track down for an earlier post here, but didn't, that says that one of the reasons why Brazilians are better at football is that they spend much longer time as kids playing informally, and it is when you play informally that you try - hence learn - to do crazy things like bicycle kicks and so forth. Deferring the moment when you wear the kit and scores are kept means prolonging this time and allowing you to mature better as a player - or so the theory goes. So when the England team said earlier in the week that in practice they all play magnificent football, I was unimpressed. Well of course you did! But making that step up into the game is not just a matter of psychology, I would argue. At the end of the day, you need to be so skilled that you know you can make an outrageous play even in the big game. Zidane's volley in the Champions League final, that Van Basten goal in Euro 88, they weren't just the product of confidence. They were so skilled that they simply knew they would pull it off.

    So Rooney plays very well in the Premiership. That's fine. But in the overwhelming majority of those games he's playing for the best team on the park by a long margin - so he gets better ball, with more time, etc. - and the individual games don't matter as much as a game in the World Cup, even if the opponent is a minnow. So when he does outrageous things in the Premiership, and fumbles in the World Cup, you say hey, it's a matter of confidence, and to a point I agree, but it's also a matter of skill. You need to be skilled enough to be able to carry your level of play to the bigger stage. The teams that can do that win the World Cups.

  2. Fascinating posts Mark.

    What I find most interesting is the strange, almost occult complicity between fans and players in creating this psychic forcefield around the goals. The English fans' favourite song on the SA terraces isn't Four Lions (itself an ode to disappointment) but the theme to The Great Escape. A film that, of course, ends with all of the hapless English characters being rounded up, machine gunned or imprisoned by the villains...


    Brazil's fans' songs?? A Taça do Mundo é Nossa (The World Cup is Ours) or Que Bonito e (How Beautiful It Is). Can you imagine English fans singing either of those songs?

  3. The above comment might've been better if I'd written Three Lions rather than Four...

  4. "For those who say England play to their level at the World Cup - can they remember a time when Lampard, Gerrard or Rooney played remotely as badly for their club?"

    This statement doesn't really fit in with your larger argument, if the collective psychology plays such a big part in international performance then the precise reason they are elevated above their level for their respective clubs is because they are surrounded by players from other nations and footballing cultures who make up for the English players psychological flaws, and offset those flaws.

    This argument can be extended to all aspects of 'footballing ability' which England are deficient in, and perhaps explain why they keep looking around at each other as if they are forced to play with a bunch of idiots below them, when in actual fact they contain as many alleged world class players as any top premiership team: Cole, Lampard, Rooney, Gerrard.

    What is really interesting in the last week, as you point out, is the bizarre emerging xenophobia, and the 'boredom' debate that popped up.

    I have heard many pundits genuinely touting Harry Redknapp as a better manager (the implication being a better rabble rouser), but a quick look at the respective records finds that Harry has one FA Cup and a premier league fourth place, while Capello has 5 Serie A titles, two La Liga titles and a champions league – one of the most celebrated European Cup final performances nonetheless. In any other situation apart from the national team this argument would be dismissed as absurd, but invoke ‘English passion’, and now it makes sense?

    This hypocrisy of the pundit can be traced through several other issues: Messi isn’t world class until he does it in a world cup but Rooney is the best striker in the world, the Champions League is at a higher level than international football but player x isn’t good enough for international football, and – on 5 live – what about ‘the players we thought were rubbish who have been brilliant at the world cup’ with Diego Forlan genuinely included alongside New Zealand’s Shane Smeltz. Yes that Forlan confirming that pundits celebrate not knowing anything about foreign leagues and being unable to pronounce players names.

    Is it all cultural imperialism and isolationism? Is it that we have an unjustified superiority complex with British football that is only truly unmasked at a world cup?