Offside, 9 July
Bad at taking penalties, good at making excuses.
How then to sum up England’s performance at Euro 2004? In a nutshell I’d say that we haven’t improved at taking penalties, but we are getting much better at making excuses.
In my last column I bemoaned our very British tendency to beat ourselves up every time our national team loses an important football match (1). Sure enough, after England’s dramatic quarter-final defeat by Portugal, there was the usual self-indulgent hand-wringing about the inadequacies of English football. We couldn’t keep possession, we defended too deep, we were over-reliant on Rooney, our midfield went AWOL, we play too much domestic football, our youth development is poor…and so on, ad infinitum. I’m as critical of England’s performance as the next man, but this extended gloom-fest was like being forced to listen to non-stop Radiohead.
However, there were also encouraging signs that an Italian-style persecution complex is now taking root in England. Firstly, there was that dodgy penalty spot. ‘I complained personally to UEFA about the penalty spot’, said Sven in the post-match press conference. ‘Beckham, I think he slipped with his foot once again unfortunately.’ As excuses go this one was pretty unconvincing, given that the Portuguese had to use the same penalty spot – but Eriksson’s instinctive attempt to lay the blame elsewhere was laudable.
A far more impressive complaint, and one that had ‘Made in Italy’ written all over it, was that we were robbed by referee Urs Meier. When he disallowed Sol Campbell’s apparently legitimate goal in the last minute of normal time, you just knew that the ‘Swiss grocer’, as John Motson scornfully referred to him thereafter, was set to become public enemy number one in England. For those of us who simply couldn’t entertain the possibility that England lost because we weren’t good enough, Herr Meier gifted us with the Mother of All Excuses.
Within hours of the fateful decision a full-blown hate campaign had sprung up in England. Emails were whizzing around cyberspace featuring graphically altered pictures of Urs Meier during the game with a guide dog at his side. British Supermarket chain ASDA announced that it would provide free sight tests for all Swiss nationals. One Labour MP tabled a House of Commons motion criticising the standard of refereeing at the tournament. There is even a website – www.wewererobbed.co.uk – devoted to the vilification of Meier, featuring an online petition calling on UEFA to sack him.
Naturally the tabloids have been particularly belligerent. ‘What an Urs Hole’, fumed the Daily Star. ‘You Swiss Banker’, raged the Sun. The paper also draped a giant St George’s Flag over his house, published his telephone number and email address, and exhorted readers to ‘let rip’. The Swiss official has reportedly received so many abusive emails that his ISP could not handle the volume of traffic. ‘The phone has been ringing constantly all day and night. The email is blocked, the office is blocked’, complained Meier, who is reported to have gone into hiding with police protection.
UEFA’s referees committee has defended Meier’s decision and strongly criticised the English press. ‘The way some of the English press have blamed Urs Meier after a correct decision is completely unacceptable’, declared committee president Volker Roth. Solidarity might be a thing of the past in most trades but officious card-happy little Hitlers evidently still stick together.
What the refereeing community fails to appreciate is that the vilification of officials, like most terrace abuse, is largely theatrical. Every week referees have to be escorted off the pitch by police or stewards with tens of thousands of irate fans screaming blue murder at them. And that’s as far as it goes. Referees are frequently threatened but, in England at least, are never physically harmed.
This isn’t the first time Meier has been a hate figure. Last year he incurred the wrath of the Romanian nation after his controversial handling of a crucial Euro 2004 qualifying game against Denmark. The Swiss referee awarded Denmark a dubious penalty and allowed a lengthy period of injury time during which the Danes stole an equaliser that effectively dashed Romania’s hopes of qualification. Afterwards newspapers published Meier’s email address, resulting in 14,000 angry messages from aggrieved Romanians. Sound familiar? Seven Romanian witches even put a curse on Meier so that he would ‘lose his capacity to whistle…be lame in his legs and feel pain in his soul’. Sadly for England the curse seems to have had no effect on Meier’s whistling ability.
Like the Romanian witches’ curse, the English hate campaign against Urs Meier is pretty harmless. Many England fans, including those who send him abusive emails, will privately admit that we didn’t deserve to win. But vilifying the referee is a grand old footballing tradition that, let’s face it, is much more fun than being gracious in defeat.
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