The World Cup: we believe we can flop

Behind the cheerful St George flag-waving, England fans are haunted by broken metatarsals and penalty screw-ups.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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St George flags fluttering from car windows. It can only mean one thing. Not St George’s Day, of course. Despite the best attempts of the political class to resuscitate a saint’s day which had been moribund since the eighteenth century, St George’s Day is still celebrated more in Palestine than in England. These days, St George is really only the patron saint of Ingerland, the national football team. Nothing can join us in common purpose quite like football. And with the World Cup nearly upon us, there is only one question on everyone’s lips: Where will it all go wrong?

Let’s face it: we’re a pessimistic nation at heart. The (extremely irritating) England supporter’s band can strike up as many choruses of ‘Rule Britannia’ as it likes. The truth is that the imperial myth of sporting invincibility is dead. It was debunked in 1953 when Hungary beat England 5-3 at Wembley. Since 1966 we’ve endured four decades of hurt. ‘So many jokes, so many jeers; But all those oh so nears; Wear you down; Through the years’, sang David Baddiel on ‘Three Lions’, a song which perfectly articulates the pain of the England football fan. There’s no trace of bravado or triumphalism in ‘Three Lions’. No preposterous bragging. The famous lyric from Scotland’s 1978 World Cup Song, ‘Ally’s Army’ – ‘And we’re going to shake ‘em up when we win the World Cup’ – has no place in a modern England football anthem.

Our defeat-scarred national psyche is well expressed in the current KitKat TV ad campaign. ‘Cross your fingers for no penalties’, implores the narrator. ‘Cross your fingers for no broken metatarsals; cross your fingers there are no tears this time.’ Germans rely on unshakeable self-belief. We cross our fingers. The advert works because it makes a visceral connection with our fears. Supporting England is all about fear. Fear is the defining feature of our national sporting character. We don’t expect to win. We’re hopeful, of course, but we fear the worst. ‘Write the future’, exhorts the Nike advert. ‘We might make a spelling mistake’, we reply.

England’s passage to the World Cup finals was remarkably smooth. Capello’s team won a tricky qualifying group quite comfortably. And yet, in the build-up to the World Cup, the old fears have resurfaced time and again. We lived in perpetual fear of broken bones. The damaged metatarsal has become a national curse; a symbol of dashed English hopes. It only seems to happen to the English: Beckham in 2002, Rooney in 2004 and 2006. We have the breakiest feet in international football. This year, thankfully, there have been no broken toes. So far. But there have been injuries to key players. In 2010 the ankle injury has been la maladie du jour amongst English footballers. First Ashley Cole, then Gareth Barry. Cole’s recovery has allayed fears of a left-back crisis after Wayne Bridge had made himself unavailable for selection. Barry has been included in Capello’s squad but his injury has exposed the lack of quality defensive midfielders.

If we’re not undone by injury, one of our players is to get himself sent off. England have paid dearly for disciplinary lapses: Beckham in 1998, Rooney in 2006. Every time Wayne Rooney suffers a knock the nation winces. Every time he charges into a tackle we wince, too. We’re just as fearful that the red mist will descend. Although Rooney has matured as a player since he stamped on Ricardo Carvalho’s goolies in 2006, the fear of Roo-rage remains. Our pa-roo-noia over the striker’s temperament may be groundless, but it illustrates England’s over-dependence Rooney. In short, if Rooney sees red our World Cup campaign is toast.

Finally, of course, there is our dread of penalties. In the 1972 Wim Wenders’ film Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (‘The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty’) a goalkeeper-turned-killer is faced with an existential dilemma: should he run or should he act normally? This dilemma is akin, in his mind, to facing a penalty. Should he dive left or right? But here’s the thing: goalkeepers have nothing to fear from a penalty kick. They have nothing to lose. Nobody blames them if they don’t save a spot kick. The penalty-taker, on the other hand, should be afraid, very afraid if he is English. Sorry Herr Wenders, but the Englishman’s fear of the penalty far exceeds a goalkeeper’s. The ghosts of Gareth Southgate, Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle and David Batty continue to haunt our penalty-takers today. When Frank Lampard missed his second successive penalty against Japan on Sunday, a shiver ran through the nation’s spine. We felt The Fear.

If England want to win the World Cup they will almost certainly encounter at least one penalty shoot-out en route. Fabio Capello has instilled a self-belief in the team that had gone AWOL under Steve McClaren. But ask yourself this: do our players believe they can win a penalty shoot out? Of course not. Like the rest of us, they just cross their fingers.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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