For the last decade, the English national team has followed a comfortable and somewhat regular pattern. First, aside from 2008, qualify for an international soccer tournament. Second, assemble a roster of the EPL‘s top goalscorers. Third, optimistically (or naively or unreasonably) set the bar high. Fourth, lose in the second round or quarterfinals. Fifth, do some half-ass soul searching. Sixth, forget recent history and start the cycle anew.
England easily qualified for the World Cup in 2010, stocked the roster with goalscoring midfielders like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and Fabio Capello spoke of a semifinal showing. However, the Three Lions lost in the second round to the Germans. Soon thereafter, folks pointed the finger at the coach, the youth academy set-up, and, of course, the players. Few people stopped to think: hey, a quarterfinal showing is pretty good for a good team. Granted, great teams normally make the semifinals and only a great team with a bit of luck can win a tournament. England, though, is a very good team. As a very good team, they consistently make the second round and sometimes get to the semis. Isn’t that good? No.
For Euro 2012, the cycle started anew. Don Fabio stayed on and England qualified for the Euros pretty easily. However, before England could properly start to weigh down its players with unrealistic expectations, a series of freak occurrences happened. And they threaten to upset the soccer world equilibrium.
First, John Terry stayed away from teammates’ wives but got into a racist spat with Antonin Ferdinand. The FA intervened and stripped him of his captaincy. This allegedly caused Fabio Capello to get angry at the FA and quit. The FA desperately hired Roy Hodgson, he of Liverpool fame shame, to lead the side. Coaching drama, oh no! Second, injuries have rocked the Three Lions camp. Promising defender Gary Cahill broke his jaw. Gareth Barry injured his hamstring or groin (depending on which news reports you read). Frank Lampard picked up a nock in training. Wayne Rooney is suspended the first two games. Michael Carrick, sick of snubs, made himself unavailable to the FA in January.
The result? England has lined the roster with young, promising, but not quite EPL all-star Liverpool players. The anti-Scousers scream bias and form conspiracies based on Roy’s insecurities. However, even the Scousers harbor doubts. In sum, England finished stage 1 of the cycle and qualified, but the lack of a stage 2 star roster has hindered a proper stage 3 building of heavy expectations. For the universe, this sucks. The English media before a major tournament mirrors a child on Christmas eve: brimming with optimism. Santa may or may not exist, but everybody’s sure that they won’t wake up to find coal under the tree. Even folks in prison get cards on December 25. The expectations are optimistic, naive, or unrealistic, depending on your view on life. However, they offer an impressive burst of energy, like a Theo Walcott dribble into four defenders.
How bad has it gotten? How low have we sunk? People can’t even get excited about the WAG’s personal jet travel at the tournament. Instead, we jealously eye the laissez-faire WAG policies of German coach Joachim Low.
Why so serious? Well, somebody tossed a monkey wrench in the escalator. At about this time, bold predictions of English greatness should be filling your Google Reader. Every single defect about the Three Lions, like, say, the decades without winning a major tournament, would tossed by the wayside. Reason? Ha. This team would be the team to surpass the past dozen teams! And when they didn’t, when they lost in the second round, then we’d get a few weeks of “youth academy system sucks” opinion pieces and perhaps a nationalist “why so many foreigners in the EPL” piece. No introspection. No realization that the second round is a respectable accomplishment for the talent on the roster. Nope.
Instead, before the tournament has even begun, England has been forced into stage 5: half-ass soul searching. However, this exercise is draped in irony or self deception. To fans of the swashbuckling EPL, this laundry list of injured “stars” makes your head spin. However, few of those crocked or suspended players made an impact at World Cup 2010. In many other walks of life, we project optimism and hope upon the blank slate of youth. For many fans, a young player offers the unexpected and thus a chance to correct past errors. So why cling to aging stars that have already flubbed their chances? Deep down, does the mouth say “Champion or bust!” while the mind thinks “quarterfinals aren’t so bad?”
Now is the Three Lions’ winter of discontent. Never mind that Liverpool boasted the fourth best defense in the EPL, thanks in large part to backtracking midfielders & hardworking forwards. The cloud of England bears no silver lining. Like an overcast summer night, folks look at the roster and don’t see any stars….and lose hope. Whether the lack of names is a blessing or a curse, only time will tell. The greatest tragedy is the sudden shock: rather than gradually accepting a quarterfinal showing as respectable, England’s young roster faces a sea change in expectations. The young side needs confidence, but won’t find a lick of it in the dailies.
Perhaps in a decade, Henderson, Downing, and Carroll will score enough goals to build a cult of the personality. For now at least they don’t have to battle unrealistic expectations, just cynicism.
Elliott’s eBook, An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, is available for under $5 at Amazon. Check out a free preview here.