Saturday, 12 June 2010

Myths about the World Cup

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.)


  1. For what is worth, and not knowing the result of the opener against the USA yet (heh), I like England this year, but I'd also say that - 1990 campaign aside - they've been very lacklustre in the last 30 years. Not losing in open play is all well and good, but if it happens consistently (and I speak as a supporter of a team that lost its share of penalty shootouts), it's just as much a failure to win as it is anything else. At some stage you're just going to have to score, and England seemed to lack that capacity to pose enough of a threat, especially down the middle - again, 1990 is an exception there - to prevent some of those games from going to the shootout.

    Hard as it is to pick them in advance, I think England is an exciting team this year, solid but with plenty of attacking talent. I like them every bit as much as I like Spain (which is a great deal more than I like Italy, unfortunately). And if it really was a question of belief, then you'd pick Capello to be the guy who terrorises the team into attacking more.

    That man doesn't believe in heroic defeat.

  2. You're quite right - England have often looked lacklustre. But my point is that many of the teams that have won the World Cup also looked lacklustre en route to winning. And if England had a problem scoring, then, self-evidently, the teams that they went out in a shoot-out against had equally as much of a problem as they did hitting the back of the net. In 98 and 2006, you also have to throw in the fact that England had a player sent off - not some unlucky accident, I think, but something that the team unconscious contrives in order to end up with the familiar heroic defeat.
    I also agree that Capello is an excellent choice as coach. He won't tolerate the heroic defeat mentality; I can't think of anyone better to be in charge of England than him. He say simply, "I expect to win"; the problem is that England never do.

  3. I think I would find it easier to accept your argument, and share your anger at lowering expectations, if England had a slightly better record in world cups. A quick look at the history shows one victory as hosts and one semi-final. Certainly mentality, a self-perpetuating destiny fulfillment, is part of this, but maybe, just maybe, the fact we consistently get to the quarter finals or last 16 when we qualify, reveals that journalists are justified in saying we are below the 'top teams'.

    1950 Group Round 1
    1954 Quarter-final
    1958 Group Round 1
    1962 Quarter-final
    1966 Champions
    1970 Quarter-final
    1974 Did not qualify
    1978 Did not qualify
    1982 Group Round 2
    1986 Quarter-final
    1990 Fourth place
    1994 Did not qualify
    1998 Round of 16
    2002 Quarter-final
    2006 Quarter-final

    A top team is surely a combination of 'footballing quality' and whatever psychological state that is necessary for success. A top team must have victories,

    Possession may be over rated when an astute tactition is in charge, but all the winners in the last 3 tournaments had the ability to be dynamic, intelligent and quick in possession through either wingbacks, or playmakers (see Grosso-Zambrotta-Pirlo, Cafu-RobertoCarlos-Ronaldhino-Rivaldo, Thuram-Lizarazu-Zidane-Djorkaeff etc), but it could be argued that England currently aren't able to do this, and if they can't, then it would be a lack of footballing quality.

    Although the Italian side in 2006 weren't a 'different class' they contained 4 or 5 players who were in better form than anyone in the England squad (the aforemention trio + Cannavaro and potentially Buffon), and played coherent team football.

  4. We all know the record ... but the issue is why that record is so poor. Since 1982, look at the evidence - not 'outplayed' time and again but going out without losing (82); narrowly beaten by eventual winners (86 and 02). But in 90, 98, 06, losing in penalty shoot-outs (and in 98 and 06, after having a key player sent off). Repeatedly losing in penalty shoot-outs needs an explanation in terms of mentality.
    There's plenty of evidence that England under Capello CAN be dynamic and quick in possession, not least the goal against the US the other day, not to mention the demolitions of Croatia in the qualifiers.
    As for playmakers, England haven't lacked them: what about Hoddle (86), Gasgoigne (90), Beckham (98 and 02)?

  5. I guess my point above was that yes, when you go to penalties it's because both teams have failed to score, by definition. But if it keeps happening to one team, cup in, cup out, this failure to win outright is less likely to have a psychological explanation alone, there must also be a technical one coming down to the team's ability. And it's never happened in a final, either, and in a semifinal only once, meaning England wasn't able to advance past stages that the best teams managed to clear quite consistently.

  6. I think the fact it's happening cup in, cup out, means it's far MORE likely to require a pschological explanation. If they were beaten in open play tournament after tournament, no psychological explanation required. But my point is at least as much about what you do 'need' to win a World Cup as what England supposedly lack. You just don't have to play that well to win a World Cup; you can do it with poor players in key positions; you can win, in fact, without most of the attributes which pundits claim are indispensable.

  7. Giovanni and Paul on the 'more than one wat to win . . .' post have got it right.England are neither beating these teams in open play, nor are they 'outplaying' these teams. Penalties is as good a way to seperate the two as anything, and contrary to the myth, is not devoid of technical skill or simply a matter of luck. Yes psychology plays a part, but to repeat the point again we are not consistently reaching semis or finals. Paul's comment is more articulate than mine will ever be, but this really is chasing straw men . . .

  8. Belated contribution here.

    The closest thing I've seen to trophy winning performances by England over the last decade or so was the group stage of Euro 2004. The problems with the team didn't all magically disappear - England conceded soft goals and distributed the ball badly - but they worked around these limitations and put in good performances (including the France game, for at least 89 minutes). It was basically England playing 'like a Premiership team' (to use the phrase that's going around) - though a team more like Aston Villa than Arsenal.

    It showed what it was possible to do even with our 'limited' players - no, they're not going to play like 1970s Ajax, and calls for them to start doing this are bizarrely optimistic. But there are enough potential strengths that *the weaknesses don't have to be fatal*. In 2004 we had a vim and confidence (score if you like, Croatia, we'll score more) that we haven't displayed in the two major tournament appearances since then - that's what strikes me as the ingredient that can get England into the endgame of one of these tournaments.

    Saying 'we can never win anything without proper footballers' is far too doomy. Look at who did win the thing in 2004.