Sports Nut

England Re-Enacts a Drama of Failure

Forty-four years without a World Cup may only be the start of the waiting.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Guardian on June 28, 2010. Read more of the Guardian’s World Cup coverage at

The men of 1966 can pack their diaries with yet more heroes’ dinners and brand-ambassador spin-offs because 44 years of waiting could be just the start.

England has still not beaten a top-flight nation in World Cup combat since 1966, when the Bobby Moore-Geoff Hurst generation exploited home advantage in the country’s one and only appearance in the final of an international tournament. A brutal pattern reasserted itself in Free State Stadium as German youth flourished and English maturity tipped over into obsolescence. Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller—flag-bearers for a more thrilling German style of play—pushed a whole crop of English household names into permanent shadow.

The Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard generation has had failure’s nail banged into it, and it shows. Deep in their minds, a voice must cry out that success at the World Cup and European Championship level is simply beyond imagining. The temptation across the English game must be to retreat to the sanctuary of the Premier League, with its Super Sunday clashes between empires of debt. These expeditions in the Three Lions livery are only a trail of tears.

Five of England’s starting 11 in this second-round match had played in Champions League finals. Pressure and expectation are written into their daily lives. With England, though, their talent evaporates, their sense of self collapses. They look tight and ponderous and tactically illiterate.

Germany played dazzling football in bursts and adjusted their pace and pattern of play to suit the circumstances. They worked out how to win the game and reach a quarter-final. Two counterattacking goals in four minutes showed up England’s defensive naïveté and wooden pursuit of an equalizer after the goal that never was: the best indictment yet of FIFA’s Neanderthal prejudice against goal-line technology.

In the Wimbledon fortnight, a simple machine can say whether a tennis ball has crossed a white line. Here, in football’s biggest competition, FIFA tells men their lives will be defined by what happens on the World Cup stage and then denies them the equipment that would make those definitions fair. For the outcomes of World Cup games to be shaped by this prejudice brings the sport into disrepute, if that isn’t an oxymoron. But this legitimate gripe will not conceal England’s ineptitude in allowing Germany to counterattack their way to a crushing victory and so extend the hurt inflicted in 1970 and 1990.

Germany has advanced further than England in every World Cup the two nations have contested in since 1966. Fabio Capello’s team didn’t lose to a history book, however. They folded in the here and now against a side with an average age four years lower. On a shallow, Premier League-warped reading of the team sheets, they would have feared the gifted Özil, 21, and Müller, 20, and known all about Lukas Podolski’s fierce shot and Miroslav Klose’s exceptional international goal-scoring pedigree (50, now, which is one more than Sir Bobby Charlton’s England record).

Yet English players who have faced Barcelona and Real Madrid in Champions League combat cannot have felt that Germany was an unstoppable historical force. They will have played the names in front of them, which makes their demise all the more frightening. Germany brought zest and zip and cunning to their attacking play. England advanced in lumpen 4-4-2 formation without any of Germany’s geometrical cleverness.

A recurring truth is that the way football is played in England (or by English players) is not conducive to international success. In Africa’s first World Cup, specifically, they won one of their four fixtures—1-0, against Slovenia—scored three and conceded five. Insiders say the campaign hit psychological turbulence when Robert Green committed a pub-keeper’s error in fumbling Clint Dempsey’s shot in the U.S.A. game. There was, by all accounts, a collapse of faith that the win over Slovenia only partially restored.

In the 21st century alone England has seen the ball sail over David Seaman’s head in Japan (2002), successive penalty shoot-out defeats to Portugal (2004 and 2006), the nonqualification debacle of Euro 2008, and a promising qualifying campaign unravel here in South Africa. Regression is the tale of Capello’s first World Cup as a manager. Quarter-finalists in 2002 and 2006, England stumbled out of Group C in second place and lost to the first big-name team they came across. To think they had recovered some of their poise in Port Elizabeth with the escapology routine against Slovenia was no idle hope. For the first time since they arrived in their purpose-built compound near Sun City, the players relaxed and seemed to see beyond Capello’s patriarchal strictness to a more fulfilling experience. Finally they joined the World Cup. The benefits of experience were starting to become apparent, and the team had assumed a more promising shape, with Gareth Barry screening the back four, James Milner excelling on the right, and Jermain Defoe seeming sharp and eager alongside Wayne Rooney, who, at 24, leaves here still without a World Cup goal.

Rooney’s sole imprint on this great competition remains the stud marks he left on the groin of Portugal’s Ricardo Carvalho four years ago. Given his precocity, Brazil in 2014 will be his last chance to impress the judges in an England shirt. Rooney improved against Germany: His first touch and link play was sharper, more aware. But over the four games, he was a phantom of his real self. The English culture managed to deliver its best player to a tournament hollow and semi-detached.

In the calamity catalog we file Rio Ferdinand’s knee injury in the first training session, Ledley King’s breakdown inside 45 minutes of the U.S.A. game, the Green goal-keeping howler, and John Terry’s failed insurrection. It was fashionable to say that at least England was not like France. In retrospect, it would have been more fun to go out like the French, with eruptions everywhere, than concede two goals on the counterattack when the score was still 2-1. Can England not press for an equalizer more intelligently?

Over the three weeks Ashley Cole, John Terry, and Glen Johnson performed creditably (though Johnson left his rear-view mirror back at base again yesterday); Lampard was mostly innocuous, Gerrard was again wasted on the left and Joe Cole underused. Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips were passengers. Michael Dawson, Stephen Warnock, Joe Hart and Michael Carrick were all denied a kick. All will flee the Royal Bafokeng complex glad to have escaped this eternal wheel of fire.

Capello toured the shires in search of fresh talent and found none. Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, and even Theo Walcott were discarded. The manager was surely right to conclude that English football’s nursery is not producing fruit. National coaching programs and strategic planning are not the English way. Feeding the Premier League monster is the only show in town. The Football Association, where a vast power void now prevails, throws money at 44 years of frustration by importing first Swedish, then Italian expertise and locking themselves into long, expensive contracts.

Feel better now? Each time the mantra is that we need to be honest about the true state and standing of the England football team. And we never are.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Check out our Magnum Photos gallery on soccer. Follow Slate’s Today’s Pictures on Twitter.