Thursday, 17 June 2010

Grieving before a death

It sounds as if Gary has already reached stage three of the grieving process described by Martin Samuel in the Mail today. Samuel applies the famous scheme devised by the German psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross - and used by Zizek as the framing device for his latest book - to chart the England fans' gradual coming to terms with defeat:

    First there is denial (if we win the tournament playing badly, nobody will complain), then anger (these players are hopeless, we're never going to win with this useless bunch), then bargaining (you know, I wouldn't even mind if we lost to Germany/Algeria/Papua New Guinea/the Platinum All Stars just as long as we play well and don't go out on penalties), depression (oh God, what's the point, I really can't take this any more) and finally acceptance (ah well, there's always next time, I bet Roy Hodgson could sort this lot out).

What's interesting about Samuel's application of Kubler-Ross is that the grief comes before the loss, which I think says a great deal about what the England team is up against. By this, I don't mean a hostile press - I think Samuels captures pretty accurately the state of mind of England supporters - I mean the mixture of wild hope and resignation that the England players must have to fight in themselves. When J├╝rgen Klinsmann was on the BBC last night reminiscing with Gary Lineker about Italia 90, he said that the West German team had a conviction that year that they would win the tournament. Lineker claimed that the England players felt the same, but it's hard to really believe that they expected to win. Expecting to win isn't the same as arrogance; and England over the last forty-six years have found it impossible to achieve that frame of mind where you expect to win, but make sufficient demands of yourself in order that you will achieve victory. England tend to struggle when they are the favourite to win, but freeze when they are the underdog, stirring themselves into their best moments only when the game is all but over.

Even given all this, it's hard not to think that the response to the US match here has been something of an overreaction - especially after the results of Spain, Italy and some of the other more fancied sides. Samuel's claim about 'momentum' is dubious: sometimes teams who win the World Cup start strongly; sometimes they stumble at first. (The one thing they don't do, at least not in any of the tournaments so far, is lose the first game: an ominous sign for Spain.) I suppose the overreaction might be because people had dared to hope that Capello might have ended this syndrome (England held or beaten by teams which they really ought to have defeated). But the USA game recalled the frustrations of campaigns past, raising the fear that not even Capello can overcome England's tournament curse.

Tomorrow's game? My sense is that England do best when they operate with a less rigid formation than they used against the US, with players moving more fluidly between midfield and attack. Last week, Rooney was like a negative version of this, marooned in some ineffective no-man's-land between midfield and the forward line. I also think that using two wingers tends to leave teams overrun in midfield, and with Wright-Phillips and Lennon playing on Saturday, Landon Donovan was able to dominate the middle of the pitch. (Wright-Phillips and Lennon were also a curious choice when you recall that Rooney doesn't typically score the kind of goals that they provide assists for. In addition, using two wingers also inhibits the forward running of our two full-backs, one reason, perhaps, why Ashley Cole in particular seemed so subdued agains the States. Then you have to bear in mind that with Wright-Phillips, Lennon and Heskey on the pitch, you had three attacking players who had minimal prospects of actually scoring a goal.) Barry's return should allow that greater fluidity in midfield. In defence, what's worrying is not Green - he's unlikely to make a mistake of that magnitude again - but the prospect of Carragher playing again. It was a real blow when England lost their best central defender (not the past-it Ferdinand, but King), but it's hard to believe that either Dawson (a very accomplished centre-half, who has done well for Tottenham this year) or Upson could do worse than the labouring Carragher, horribly exposed for pace many times on Saturday.


  1. I just really hate the fact that memorable moments in big tournaments for England tend to be penalty shoot-outs, or those situations where we've supposedly been hard done by. Not good football. Aside from Owen's goal against Argentina in '98, and Cole's against Sweden four years ago, the actual playing has been really dull. Those last two moments you could, if you like, characterize as English players doing very un-English things: an electric mazy run and finish and a long range belter of the kind that the Brazilians or Dutch are famed for (though admittedly not perhaps so much in recent years). These are instances of total expression, total freedom.

    The fear would be that we've already endured one of those such moments - one of those nonsense 'what if' episodes: "what if Green had only got his body behind the ball?"

    What I can't understand is the approach of nations like, for example, Denmark or Ghana, or any of the sides genuinely not expected by anyone to win the World Cup. Like everyone else, they'll take it game by game, but they don't have, as you say, that same neurosis - they don't make the same inward demands.

    I guess I'm really craving some kind of seizing of the moment, something that Shaun Wright-Phillips couldn't realise when he shot so weakly at Tim Howard the other night, and just turned with that look of "ah never mind. I'll get another chance in a minute" on his face. The Germans love these moments, live for them, and despatch their shots on goal as if they'll never have the opportunity to do strike the ball again (see Podolski against Australia).

    As I genuinely don't expect us to win the tournament, all I'd really want is a *great moment*, a moment of skill, flair, whatever. The quarter-final against Portugal in 2006 was just so poor, I don't think I'd want to endure that kind of passage to that stage in that fashion ever again. You could actually just ignore the neurosis, as I'm sure the Danes or Paraguayans would be happy with the same thing. This is what I mean about the professional athlete's attitude - winning is everything - and the fan, who just really wants to be entertained. I'm not saying I don't want us to win, far from it, but I'd rather not be so utterly exasperated.

    I like your point about fluidity between midfield and attack, but to be honest, I genuinely can't remember the last time we had any kind of fluidity in the middle of the park. It's just not the game we play. The hallmark of the non-functioning Lampard/Gerrard midfield axis has been a total inertia in support play. The Spanish, Brazilians and Argentinians all move all over the place (and the Mexicans - Pique and Marquez are two great exponents of this, centre-backs suddenly emerging in the box and weaving their way through the opposing defence) but there's nowhere near as much flexibility in the England team.

  2. I can't claim the credit, but this notion seems worth considering, emailed from a friend:

    Are England shit because they’re weighed down with so much sublimated class anxiety, ie do they believe deep down that they shouldn’t rise too far above their station? Or perhaps that combined with the delusions and distractions that come with being so central to our celebrity culture.

    I think he's hit the bullseye. As has already been discussed hereabouts, there clearly is a national psyche in all this (so I don't think it's quite right to talk about a 'tournament curse'). And, as everyone knows, what's most distinctive about the english mentality is class and it's concomittant class anxiety, that deep-seated unworthiness.

    You could never accuse Ashley Cole of being riddled with self-doubt, for example. But where you might legitimately use the word (ok, trot out the cliche) 'imperious' or 'aristocratic' to describe a german/italian/dutch team, the english version of arrogance is distinctively brittle and chippy.

    The other night Green, Terry, Gerrard, Lampard, Heskey, Crouch hand a hangdog air that felt like capitulation to currents beyond their ken. Against which dismal historical forces even a Capello - I stand firmly corrected, ZoneStyx - is powerless.

    Now watch them stuff Algeria

  3. I think it's more to do with nationality than class, and it's more to do with the England team as an entity than the players who make up the team. Cole, Lampard, Rooney etc certainly look imperious when playing for Chelsea/ Man Utd ... By tournament curse I meant this transformation of raging bulls into meek mice ....