As I write, journalists across the country are frantically sharpening their pencils. The back pages of our papers will soon be awash with column upon column of conjecture, forecasting the fate of the England team at next year’s European Championship. What we will witness from the media over the coming months is what we always see as England prepare for a major tournament: an endless, contradictory stream of negativity, hype, sniping, hysteria, support, rhetoric and anything else that will undermine any hope Fabio Capello and his team have of success. Amidst all of this drivel, the press will still strive to ensure that the players board the plane for Poland buckling beneath the burden of expectation weighing heavily on their shoulders.
It is irresponsible, inconsistent journalism that has put me right off supporting England. The media circus that surrounds the national team is not only embarrassing but also damaging to our chances of ever winning another international tournament. It’s difficult to forget the absurd emphasis the press placed on Gareth Barry’s battle for fitness at last year’s World Cup, for example. Or the subsequent clamour for the inclusion of Joe Cole that proved so divisive and destabilised England’s entire campaign. Predictably, the majority of English journalists were left a little red-faced when Mesut Ozil sashayed past Barry (who looked like he was running in wet trousers) to set up Germany’s sublime fourth goal and dump England out of the competition.
I can only imagine the extent to which Rooney’s three-match international ban will be covered in the media. How on earth will we cope without our only genuine match-winner? Should Capello even include him in the squad? Every possible scenario will be mulled, chewed and presided over to the point of pre-tournament exhaustion.
Such coverage is confusing and unnecessary but above all, teeth-gnashingly annoying. It fuels the hysteria now synonymous with most England games: the chest-thumping jingoism, the painted faces, the flag-waving, the insufferable ‘England band’ parping plaintively on their bugles as if to salute the death of English football. I find it all quite difficult to stomach if I’m honest. It’s axiomatic that, as an Englishman I want England to win rather than lose. However, there is a callous side to me that is quietly satisfied when we’re beaten and the thousands of fans who were foolish enough to buy into the notion that England are any good, trudge away from Wembley crestfallen. Their face paint smudged and their tails firmly between their legs.
Following an unspeakably depressing World Cup last year, England’s qualification for the European Championships was achieved surprisingly smoothly. I certainly wouldn’t say that we scraped through (as reported on Sky Sports). Despite being a team in transition, performances were, in general, as steady as Fabio Capello’s granite jaw. He even proved flexible enough to alter the formation and introduce new personnel. All that we can ask of the Italian is that he establishes a philosophy that gives us the best chance of success in the future. His attempt to replace the leaden-legged England of Bloemfontein with a more imaginative, nimble side has resulted in some promising displays. Though it is still clearly a work in progress, the performances have at times involved an incisiveness and fluidity that we haven’t seen for many years. It would appear that we are finally taking tentative steps in the right direction.
But please let’s not get carried away. It is imperative that perspective is maintained. As we have seen, reckless journalism can unravel much of the good work we have seen at times during qualification. Whilst the players must believe they can win the tournament, it is still important that we as supporters understand that they probably won’t. As it stands, England don’t have a team good enough to challenge Spain or Germany or Holland and win the European Championships. Well, not without a huge slice of luck anyway. The nucleus of the team that failed so dramatically in South Africa still remains, so expectation of anything more than the Quarter Finals is unwarranted. Just look at the history books – I’m not being pessimistic; I’m being realistic.
It is also important that such equanimity is applied when England suffer setback. The point that secured unbeaten qualification in Montenegro last Friday night was greeted with derision and frustration, more so I suppose because of the manner in which Wayne Rooney was dismissed and England let a two goal lead slip away, yet it was reported in the media as if it were a loss. I think this is unfair. Apparently nobody took the time to consider the possibility that Montenegro might dare to be a well-organised side, with good players playing for qualification to the European Championships.
As the reaction to the point in Podgorica shows, the football press in this country uphold an almost xenophobic ignorance when it comes to acknowledging the footballing capacity of other nations. They made a huge deal of the fact there are only 625,000 people living in Montenegro. So what? A country’s population is irrelevant when it’s 11 vs 11. I don’t understand what is to be gained from such pointless reporting. The truth is, the level of professionalism in football has improved globally meaning the number of truly dreadful international teams is falling year-on-year. Most teams have made themselves very difficult to beat and consequently the vast chasm of quality that used to exist between the best and worst teams is slowly being bridged. As Montenegro demonstrated, the less renowned international teams won’t yield to higher-ranking opposition just because they have the most televised domestic leagues.
I think we all need to concede that English football isn’t necessarily ‘where it’s at’. To think otherwise is old-fashioned. What we must acknowledge is that, though our domestic league is sparkling with superstars, very few of them are actually English. Only Rooney, and possibly Ashley Cole would make my Premier League eleven. You might be able to make an argument for one of our centre halves and possibly Joe Hart, but that’s it. How good can we expect our national team to be when the best players in our own domestic league aren’t English?
What I would like to see before the team depart for Poland is some rational, pragmatic journalism. The type of speculation that pursues the England team is unhealthy and whips up a level of expectation that is naïve and ungrounded. In victory or defeat it is important to maintain perspective and remain logical. We’re not the best team in Europe but we’re far from being the worst. It is the responsibility of the press to provide balanced coverage and help to convert the average England fan from fanatical manic–depressive to philosophical aficionado. You never know though, with a bit of luck we might find ourselves in the Semi-Finals… where’s that face paint…?
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