This could be taken in a couple ways looking back at the last seven days. Politicians in Britain (more so the UK), which I’ve decided has lost its right to name itself Great, have put the people in very dire straits with the world looking on in a mixture of concern, disgust and annoyance (except for EU sceptics and far right loons). Simultaneously, three teams in the UK have been playing in the UEFA European Championship. While Wales heroically stride through the tournament like a team that has been entering major cups for years and Northern Ireland who defied the odds by reaching the second round, not to forget the Republic of Ireland’s success over Italy (yes, I know it’s not part of the UK, and I can only imagine the irritation the Irish feel when they are referred to by English commentators as a “home nation“), England have somehow managed to make yet another mockery of the most over-used expression in football, “the beautiful game“; the sport that we English are so quick to remind world was created on those very green isles. If you don’t know it already (and even if you don’t like footy, you honestly really should), England crashed out to a team of big sons, rather than big guns, and a country so cold it decided to name itself after the weather. Yes, that team is Iceland. And as cruel irony would have it, a country not in the EU.
A lot has been said about the country’s population. Coventry’s is slightly bigger I believe. 10% of it has been in France for the tournament, I also hear (you can almost hear Iceland’s no-gooders looting empty homes of their celebrating compatriots). I read the assistant coach had to prolong his vacation from his part-time job as a dentist as Iceland trounce Europe’s former mediocre soccer powers (it would have to be his luck that his dental practice boss is the country’s sole inhabitant who has absolutely no interest in football and is a hermit with no clue of his country’s success.
“Why are you late from your vacations?”
“Er… we won Euro 2016.”
“LIE. You’re fired!”)
All this means diddily to me. Like all neutrals, I am very happy for Iceland. Not in a patronising way by reciting population statistics like those above, but in seeing the people experience such euphoria in the country’s first appearance in a cup, and the players living the moment by playing good aggressive football. Mark my words, this was no fluke. Anyone who writes off this team is going to get slapped across the face by a cold Icelandic fish, and ol’ England had its turn on Monday night.
I saw this coming. It had banana skin written all over it (or maybe “iceberg warning” is a more appropriate metaphor). Facebook updates from English fans stunk of arrogance, sighing with relief that we’d missed a date with the bizarre eye-browed Ronaldo, assuming that we were going to roll Iceland over, except it was they who were real steam rollers (or harpooners? Sorry for the terrible stereotypes), knocking down the English kindergartners to every ball. Another cruel irony is that Iceland played like a traditional English team, with a rigid 4-4-2 formation, using aggression and quick long passes to the big lads up front; it really should have suited the English perfectly. The Icelandic team is coached by the Swede Lars Lagerbäck who has a very good record against England. Iceland themselves were on form and had already knocked out the Dutch in the qualifiers, beating them home and away. The omens weren’t good. The Icelandic players spoke before the game of their love of the Premier League, and seemed to know more about our game than we knew about ourselves. This Premier League season has been year of the underdog with Leicester City claiming the title, a team that also plays in blue, yet we could be seeing a repeat of an unbelievable victory on international level with Iceland. I bet the bookies are shitting themselves.
The thing is, and Pamela can back me up, I really didn’t care about the game as an England fan. I have been glued to my phone since Friday morning, like most Britons, trying to get the latest news unravelling in the imploding of UK politics. Turning my attention from the game to learn that pound was free-falling was a far more horrifying worry than Joe Hart’s terrible goalkeeping (that boy was great while on loan at Birmingham back in 2010. He wasn’t bad at all then. He must have picked it up these bad habits at Man City. Look at Raheem Sterling, for example), although it wasn’t far behind. The UK has bigger fish to fry outside football, going against Bill Shankley’s famous saying regarding the importance of the sport. More than ever, England has become Europe’s favourite team to hate, especially after the crowd trouble, and we are better left out. I also felt ashamed of being British for this vote, especially for Brexit’s racist components.
England got off to a great start with an early penalty, then almost immediately Iceland immediately hit back through a header from a long throw, from which England knew Iceland were dangerous before the game, then another goal soon after thanks to yet another calamity by an English goalkeeper. Like all England fans, there was always this thought that the team would suddenly click into gear. After the 30th minute, with England’s passing as wayward as a Brexit campaigner’s fact, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Even the players who played reasonably well earlier in the tournament looked run ragged and broken. Dier and Rooney and Walker resorted to hit and hope balls. It was that point I gave up and cooked up a feast for my wife; fish in orange with a ratatouille sauce mixed with potatoes. It had to be a French dish; my own way of giving Brexit a two finger salute. My wife assures me it was delicious. The best news I’ve had in the last seven days. Here’s some pictures:
The Icelandic game plan worked perfectly, whereas England didn’t seem to have one, other than their own version of directionless tiki-taka. England’s attacks ended in half chances and everything Iceland produced was clinical and they looked like scoring more. People complain about Italy, but I find their style fascinatingly tense and effective; soaking up pressure, then BAM. Maybe Iceland’s robustness made us hapless, or maybe the players were affected by the post-Brexit mess, although I don’t want readers to think I’m looking for excuses. England were out fought and out-played. Simple.
When the game ended, I almost did a little sea shanty jig, but I did listen to Sigur Ros at full blast, just like the rest of Europe was probably doing. The pain was over in sport. England are currently a second round team at best, like the UK in world politics. There is some talent coming through. There is a plan of winning the 2022 World Cup, but I’m about as convinced of that as me winning Wimbledon next year. The pressure on the players is too much. The plan is fine, but just play to enjoy. The fear and tension transmits to the supporters; we feel it, too. But more crucially, so do the opposition.
The players aren’t tatalentless. Harry Kane is still good and his ridiculously bad free kick the other night does not make him terrible. Nor do I think this group of players are passionate-less. There is a problem with the mentality. Gareth Bale’s comments, which I mocked, might have some truth after all, especially when you consider the individualism in the England team, stepping out on to the field believing we have already won the game, exactly like we did against Iceland. I guess it’s a self-deserving mentality, stemming from imperialism, something we’ve been accused of by members of the European Union for years when don’t get our way. We think we deserve to win cups and hold tournaments, just because we created the sport. It’s an arrogance I’ve touched on in earlier posts, and it sits there in the back our minds and acts as a huge blockade. You could see how we flapped and fell apart when Iceland bullied us. We didn’t like it nor could we handle it. The arrogance also gives the opposition fuel to beat us, which must make it quite enjoyable for everyone to watch us lose. The media revels in the hype before tournaments, but I don’t think it exists in all of us fans. We have blind hope, maybe. However, if we don’t do something to overcome the mentality, we will continue the barren spell at big tournaments and celebrate unimportant friendly victories, the one off one shit wonder results, while our rivals load themselves with medals. It’s fine to be ambitious, but make sure you score the goals before you call yourself a champ.
Saying that, why don’t other teams in the UK have this complex mentality?
Another school for thought is that English players favour their clubs. It’s been the case for years with Lampard and Gerrard et al. Sir Alex Ferguson often said the English leagues are more tribal than anywhere else, whether it be in the Midlands, North East, North West, London etc. I understand that other countries have their own derbies or conflicts between clubs which go beyond the sport, whether it Real Madrid v Barcelona, Marseille v Paris St Germain or northern Italian clubs against those in the south. However, there does seem to have been conflicts in the England team, such as Liverpool and Man Utd players sitting at separate tables while on England duty. Does this happen with other teams though? I don’t know. Barça and Real Madrid players are known to clash on Spanish duty. Look at the conflicts between Sergio Ramos and Pique.
Roy Hodgson quit as England manager immediately after the game, which was a sad necessity. The knives were out for him from the start because the “people” (claim the mainstream press) didn’t get their man Harry Redknapp. It was in fact a poison chalice. I don’t believe England would have done much better with anyone else. After Capello, England needed to bring in youth. He did that. England needed to change their playing style. He did that. England wanted someone stable to deal with the John Terry scandals effectively. He is and did that. England needed an English manager who understands the English mentality. He is and he did that. Very few game him credit for a 100% win record in qualifying. In fact no one seemed to care of the success in the continent and he got to a Europa League final with Fulham with not the greatest squad of players. Over time, people wanted a less conservative approach and a change of formation. He did that. Not only that, he often played with three to four recognised strikers at any one time. What the hell do people want?!
Quite simply, he was a decent man who people loved to criticise. A horrible job is England manager, where everything you do is under the microscope and everyone has an opinion. And if you make the wrong decision, you’re suddenly incompetent, spawn of the devil, shit forever. He wasn’t the best coach, okay, but he wasn’t the worst. He’s not got the winning mentality of Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson, but would they take the England job and tarnish their reputations forever? No chance. Look at Sven, look at Capello, look at Taylor, look McClaren. All of them were considered good coaches with great reputations before they took the England job. Now?
Of course, you can point out errors he was punished for. I will, too. What was the game plan? Why were strikers out on the wing? Why did he pick Wilshire over Drinkwater? Why did he insist on playing Sterling? Decisions cost him two big tournaments. It’s a shame. He did his best on a salary far less than Fabio Capello’s. No one can ask more.
When the next coach comes in, he (or she) could well reap the benefits of the system Hodgson has tried to put in place. Instead, Hodgson will find it hard to get a job at a top club ever again. No thank yous. No pat on back. Just the legacy of losing to Iceland and good riddance. Not very polite. Not very British. He deserves somewhat better.
Now we are out of Euro 2016, I guess we can follow Wales or Iceland or just suffer more political embarrassments as United Kingdom self-destructs. I think Honduras plays in the Olympics. Might be interesting. On this blog though, don’t expect many positive articles my home country for a while. Very worrying times.