Reality check yes, but why so joyless?
THE fashion this summer is for miserablism. Where England used to go into tournaments on a wave of, admittedly, often unfounded optimism and tub-thumping, the trend this year is to point out every fault in a world weary tone. ‘Just for the sake of it, make sure you’re always frowning, it shows the world you’ve got substance and depth,’ sang the Pet Shop Boys, and there has been quite a bit of that about of late.
Much of it comes in the name of giving the public what it wants, except the public does not know what the hell it wants either. Half want chuckle-headed cheerleading, tied to a news blackout around any information or opinions that may adversely affect the team, others would have every bulletin written from the perspective that England will ultimately be passed off the park by Spain or Brazil or go out on penalties to Germany, so the entire campaign will be an exercise in futility.
Injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Gareth Barry, and some pretty unconvincing pre-tournament warm-up games, have only compounded the negativity.
The reality, as ever, is somewhere midway. England have issues, but so do many others. There is no perfect team in the world at the moment. Spain are closest to it and Brazil have much potential; Argentina should be up there but have a troublesome maverick in charge.
Portugal possess arguably t he greatest player for this tournament in Cristiano Ronaldo — certainly if the World Cup ball perf or ms as erratically as predicted from free-kicks — but he lacks the support of a strong team. Lionel Messi i s not as effective for Argentina as he is for Barcelona.
There is always the fear that Fernando Torres of Spain will be injured, while two of the strongest outsiders, Holland and Ivory Coast, have fitness scares affecting their best players, Arjen Robben a nd Didi e r Drogba.
Italy lack a great striker, France are unconvincing under Raymond Domenech and injury has so damaged Germany that the average age of the squad makes it t he t hi r d youngest at t he tournament, behind Ghana and North Korea.
So England have what might be termed a puncher’s chance. It would be foolish to overstate it, but to dismissively write off a team coached by Fabio Capello and including a collection of players — John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney — who are coveted by t he greatest clubs and managers in the world seems perverse.
England have a favourable group and a route that, if all goes according to form, avoids the most fancied team, Spain, until the f i nal, and Brazil until t he semi-final. There is still plenty of trouble out there, but each country has its problems and, whatever history suggests, none will welcome a pairing with England. So why the long face? In the rush to embrace realism after past disappointments we appear to have overshot our stop and al i ghted at pessimism instead.
To briefly digress, a writer called Justin Halpern began posting the thoughts of his 73-year-old father, Sam, on Twitter. He now has a million followers. Sam’s observation about a particularly fine woman that Justin was too intimidated to approach bears repeating.
‘Out of your league?’ he echoed. ‘Son, let women figure out why they won’t screw you. Don’t do it for them.’
This is what we are doing as the World Cup begins. Standing with the wallflowers finding reasons not to ask the prettiest girl to dance. And maybe the biggest prize is beyond us. But it is going to be beyond 30 other countries, too. The point is, if we are going to fantasise, why project failure? We may think we are being adult and honest, but what we are actually doing is sucking out the fun of travelling hopefully.
It starts with this ‘ England manager: the impossible job’ nonsense. No, it isn’t. Perhaps for those who pick unfit players, untried 17-year-olds or Carlton
Palmer, but not for Capello, as he proved in qualifying.
If he can withstand the might of Slovenia, Algeria and the United States, Capello needs to get through four matches to win a trophy and can call on some of the finest players in Europe to help him. That is still difficult, but not impossible. Nobody demands he win it with North Korea. That’s impossible. This is not a rallying cry for false assurance. At the last World Cup, when England stank the place out but scrambled to the quarter-finals, Ferdinand talked up the chances of ultimate triumph against all evidence.
‘If we won the World Cup playing badly, nobody would care,’ he said. He did not comprehend that no team wins the World Cup playing badly. A few ropey games at the start, maybe, but, after that, raise your game or go home, as England duly did.
Clearly there needed to be a reaction against the complacency of 2006, underlined by the forest of autobiographies that served as a postscript, each intended as the coffee table companion to momentous personal achievement.
So a reality check, yes, but why so joyless? It would seem that this year the preferred outlook is the studied languor of the only grownup in the village. Home in on the flaws, pick apart the weaknesses, a contemptuous curled lip at the ready for the first sign of optimism. Where is the pleasure in that?
Who wants to be proved right when the sullen prediction is another summer of frustration and failure? It is as if we are insuring against defeat by getting our negativity in f i rst. ‘ Deny that happiness is open as an option, and disappointment disappears overnight.’ That’s the Pet Shop Boys again. (The song is called
Miserablism, if you’re interested. It’s a satirical poke at Morrissey. Half-decent remix by Moby, too.)
But there is a middle ground. Tub-thumping was the traditional prelude to an international football tournament in England and all that Harry and St George guff can grow tiresome after 44 years of coming home early. Yet while this might not have been the most sophisticated method of analysis, it did at least walk on the sunny side of the street.
Is it too si mple-minded to embrace that now? Amid all the clichés and the button-pressing, the tub-thumpers at least tried to advance reasons why England could succeed. And there are usually more than a few, as there are again this time if we only had half a mind to look.
We three kings (left to right): Frank Lampard, John Terry and Wayne Rooney are among the world’s best