Belfast Telegraph

Mark Steel: The decline and fall of England's empire

How long does it take for a nation that once had an empire to come to terms with the fact it's no longer as important as it was? Do people from Rome still go around singing "Carthage, Galls and Southern Spain doo-da, doo-dah?". This is a vital question as we ponder our latest humiliation.

If you see Brazilians, Africans, Koreans or Portuguese watching their football teams, you get lost in an array of colour and silky costumes, of gongs, horns, drums, dancing and celebration before the game even starts. But an English crowd is a human thundercloud of tension, and even if we win we're relieved rather than happy, so it's enjoyable in the same way it's fun to get a letter from the hospital saying they don't think the growth is malignant but they've got to do more tests.

Then we return to bipolar over-optimism, declaring we could still win the World Cup because we beat Slovenia, a nation whose population is smaller than the number we've got unemployed.

The cause of these mood swings could be a lost empire. We're still brought up to believe that for us to come out on top is part of the natural order. It's probably not as bad as when I was at school, when it was insisted we invented everything and ran everything and had the best climate, and teachers would say things like: "And we've got the best insects. Other countries are full of giant poisonous earwigs and gnats that eat your liver but we've got proper insects like greenflies and tiny ants because we know how to keep bugs manageable because we're English."

But it's still in the air that we gave the world civilisation and justice and football so surely we'll win the World Cup even though all rational thought tells us that's impossible. On Sunday morning I heard six separate footballers and commentators say we'd beat Germany because we'd been so bad in the group stages we were bound to get better. That's like a weatherman saying: "Tomorrow will be sweltering hot as all our information points to it being bloody freezing."

But it's not their fault, it's the logic of needing to justify unfounded optimism. The sad reality is that in the last 19 tournaments of World Cups and European championships, the total number of games England have won in the knockout stages is six. And they've been against teams like Denmark, Belgium and Cameroon.

But we bury all that into the subconscious and declare we'll win because we must because didn't we use to run everything and we won it 44 years ago so it's about time, and in the 2554 World Cup there'll be a song that goes, "Set your vocal mode to 'cheers'/For after 588 years/This time England's bringing home the cup."

Other nationalities either whoop with confidence, like Brazil, or squeal because they're delighted to be there, like Japan. But we're caught in a spiral of false expectations and frustration, and ironically if everyone wasn't so pent up about proving our position by winning there'd be more chance of doing so. At least now the tension is usually friendly, and there's a sense we lost not because we were cheated but because we were dreadful. If that sense of reality continues this could prove to be England's most successful World Cup since 1966.

A presenter on XFM asked for texts to send to the team, and instead of blaming the disallowed goal, typical messages were: "That performance was so bad my goat ran away from home in disgust. How am I supposed to feed my family now?" and: "Fabio, on behalf of the country's men, you have metaphorically slept with all our wives."

And almost everyone is looking beyond the game itself for the failure. Newsnight looked at the economic reasons, teachers are blaming the lack of school fields, and The Geologist magazine will probably blame the brittle nature of the Earth's crust under Britain, and demand the FA reinstates the softer Jurassic period. Even so, it's a good job Capello isn't manager of Andy Murray, or he'd probably take him off half way through the third set and replace him with Emile Heskey.

Belfast Telegraph


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