English football and the illusion of superiority

by Steve

I commented today on an interesting post on the expectation in England that the national team will win from the Pitch Invasion blog, a response to Simon Barnes’ article in The Times, England remain in fantasy football land. I thought it was worth expanding upon here:

So, why do the English accept they are no longer superior in every area, but do not accept this with football?

I guess in every other arena there has been an accumulation of events that has led to the English accepting they are no longer superior. In terms of world power, the failures of the Suez Crisis confirmed that the UK did not have the power or clout it once had on the world stage. In general terms, since the Second World War, the US has proved itself to be the pre-eminent world power. And Britain/England has been happy to punch above its weight with a ‘special relationship’, making the best of being the ‘junior partner’. Over time, England’s new position in the world has become clear.

In cricket, for the sporting example, Australia and the West Indies have often been dominant (and at the very least, competitive) when facing England. English cricket fans are now used to disappointment, and have adjusted, to live in hope rather than expectation.

Football, however, is a different beast. There have been wake-up calls, from Hungary winning 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, to failing to qualify for Euro 2008. But, there are still factors that can (and do) sustain a sense of expectation (if not superiority, exactly) in the English footballing psyche.

The “1966 and all that” mythology clearly prevails, at least to an extent. England have won a major tournament once, so why not again? And that argument isn’t that absurd. The national side has had its bad times, but generally England are in the reckoning at major tournaments. They are seen as, on their day, able to beat most other sides. They may be perennial quarter-finalists in practice, but losing by penalties does help perpetuate the idea that with a little bit of luck England could dominate again.

The fact that the major tournaments are reasonably open helps. Outsiders such as Denmark and Greece have won. So-called ‘under-achievers’ like Holland and Spain have won too. The last six World Cups have been won by five different countries.  The last six European Championships have been won by six different countries. As no one country dominates international football (unlike say, international politics), it is easier to be confident and to expect success.

Meanwhile, English clubs have consistently been successful in Europe. Even though the top English club sides are now dependent on imports, they still have English players at the heart of things – Gerrard, Terry, Rooney etc. The Premier League is probably the most popular league in the world, and it is easy to confuse ‘most popular’ with ‘best’. All of this helps foster a sense of pride in English football.

So, I can understand the mentality of English supporters considering English football to be the ‘best’, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it myself. I also think ‘superiority’ is too strong a word. English football supporters do not think their national side is head-and-shoulders above anyone else, far from it. They just think that with a little application, drive, skill and luck, they should win against any side. Is that such a bad thing?

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