Tuesday, June 26, 2012

For once, it's OK

Another Monday, another round of recrimination, another sad, dejected journey home from some far-flung land, tails between legs, fresh scars from another humiliating defeat.

Yeah, yeah, and all that. It is starting to become depressingly familiar even writing such an intro, given that the origin of this very blog lay in England's miserable, wretched performance in the 2010 World Cup.

"Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin," were my somewhat uninspired opening words, admittedly bashed out in pique on a 7am Monday morning commuter train. England's ejection from South Africa, at the clinical feet of an organised, effective and impressive Germany (and a disorganised, ineffective and unimpressive FIFA) was just reward for the dismal way they'd limped through the group stages, weighed by their own egos, inflated expectation and by an uncommunicative manager who seemed to have turned up to run a different football team entirely.

Well not this time. Let the flags of St. George continue to fly, and may the white and red face paint remain unwashed for a few more days at least. It's OK, it really is.

England made a good fist of Euro 2012. They weren't fancied to begin with, they were never likely to win the thing anyway, but, like a progressive junior school maintaining that taking part is just as good as winning, they got involved, they looked like a team, finally, and they made their way through Group D and into another ill-fainted quarter-final. 

Had England beaten Italy - and, just like Chelsea in Munich on May 19, penalties could have ended differently - they'd have faced a Germany who are, this year, even more organised, effective and impressive. Sound familiar? Ask Roberto Di Matteo.

The press have and will continue to make remarks about penalties, "cruelty" (it's not cruel, it's just 10 men kicking a ball from a dead position and two men trying to stop it) and that England weren't 'all that' at Euro 2012. Well, that's as maybe, but at least this time they acknowledged their deficiencies from the outset, recognised their weaknesses, and got on with doing their best, and nothing more.

Moreover, national expectations were suitably recalibrated. There was no talk of a "golden generation" in the press, none of that "If we can't win with this side, then we'll never win" reverse psychology cobblers. Even invocation of 1966 was refreshingly stricken from the national conversation as it finally dawned on people that 46 years of hurt is starting to be symptomatic rather than a repetitive conspiracy. Mention of Italia'90 and Euro'96 were kept to a minimum, lest they raise hubris too high, though no-one seems to care that neither tournaments ended any better for England, with more misery at the hand of you-know-whats to the you-know-who in the you-know-when.

In 2012 there was no mention of internal rancor, splits, divisions and card schools. Even John Terry behaved himself impeccably off the field. The WAGs, too kept a respectful distance, though I'm not linking these two statements.

While the outcome of the Poland & Ukraine adventure for England may have been the same as previous expeditions, it was a different England taking part. Credit, for their composure, their "normality", their workmanlike, sleeves-rolled-up approach must go to Roy Hodgson, a manager who exudes all three of those virtues. 
For all the misgivings about the somewhat suburban manager taking over a team of uptown personalities, Hodgson's quiet, down-to-earth manner was the right one. 

"How come?" you may contest, seeing as he didn't produce any sort of material improvement on previous England results in tournaments at this level. He produced a team. From back to front, England looked and played like a unit, a "group", as Jose Mourinho would call them. 

They behaved like a team, even one that largely fell together in the weeks leading up to Euro 2012, with a manager appointed little more than a month before the competition began. All this followed a vacuum in which all sorts of devilish behaviour went on surrounding race relations and other matters. Despite it things turned out, well, OK.

Coming from a country which regards The Great Escape as a icon of national success (it ends mostly in disaster, by the way), I am putting a brave face on England's performance in and ejection from Euro 2012. Things weren't perfect, and Sunday's encounter with Italy threw a vicious spotlight on a gap (but not a "gulf" - © all newspapers) - in class with England. True, Andrea Pirlo ran a masterclass in midfield ownership, something even the most die-hard, Cross of St. George body-tattooed England fan would have to recognise.

On top of this, England did look tired at times: I know England fielded a squad of multi-millionaires, but even these pampered souls, with their Louis Vuitton toilet paper and his'n'hers matching Range Rovers, have been run into the ground by a long Premier League season. The Chelsea boys had to deal with an extra 240 minutes of Champions League football over their teammates, while the Manchester United and City players, not to mention Spurs' Scott Parker, were required to give their all right up until the final whistle of the domestic season. These may be supreme athletes, but they're also human, and it was starting to show.

So, what next? World Cup 2014. And we get to go through it all over again. 
"If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through." - General Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, Blackadder Goes Forth

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