One of the most unbearable things about following England is enduring the smug national self-loathing that pundits insist on pushing in the name of 'realism' - all those newspaper columns about how we should lower our expectation, England should know their place, that they are below the top level sides ...
It's true that England don't thrive on playing possession football, but the idea that they have repeatedly gone out of the World Cup because of inferior footballing ability doesn't bear much scrutiny. In reality, in all of the tournaments they have qualified for since 1982, they have only gone out in open play twice - in 1986 and 2002 - and these were very narrow defeats to the eventual winners. In 1982, they went out without losing a game; in the other tournaments they have gone out on penalties. This suggests that the problem cannot be accounted for in purely footballing terms; I've argued before that this demands some kind of psychoanalytic explanation - that there is a kind of jouissance of defeatism which contrives a situation in which heroic defeat is the inevitable result. I believe this runs deep into the psyche of the English now - and that's why it is essential that England have a foreign coach, who can interrupt what Mark E Smith called the 'inbuilt loser attitude' of the England player.
Partly this defeatism rests on myths about the World Cup that we'll hear endlessly repeated in the commentary on this tournament, especially if tonight's game doesn't go so well. We'll hear that you need to play free-flowing football in order to win the world cup and you can't win the world cup if you can't keep the ball - but neither are true. The hard truth is that you don't have to play particularly well to win the World Cup; and, conversely, flamboyant sides don't tend to win. For the last forty years, the typical winner of the World Cup has more closely resembled Brazil 1994 than Brazil 1970. Italy won the last World Cup by putting in perhaps one good performance. (And who, by the way, would say that the Italy side in 2006 were 'in a different class' to England? - and I write all this as very much an admirer of Italy). Germany have qualified for final after final without ever turning it on. Brazil only won in 1994 when they adopted a Dunga-anchored pragmatism. Even France in 1998, who were a great side, stumbled and struggled at points on their route to the final.
Similarly, possession is overrated. We hear a lot of cooing about Barcelona, but it was Mourinho's Inter who won the Champions League this year. Playing quickly on the break and pressing when the opponents have the ball is a highly effective way of winning football matches, a style of play that is well within England's competence. But England will never win the World Cup unless they can lose the belief that there are other teams (usually with Latinate names) who are a Different Class and who (unlike England) Can Win. Still, breaking down that belief might prove a great deal harder than learning how to keep the ball.
As for tonight's game? Well, England rarely win the first game in the World Cup (one interesting syndrome is the way in which the same patterns repeat themselves tournament after tournament, with completely different players - something I'll return to in future posts.) Still, a number of teams have lost the first game and gone on to win the tournament. Pessimism clouds my judgement in respect of England, but I wouldn't be at all surprised by a draw. (Which will promote precisely the bout of self-loathing I wrote about above.)