Saturday 17 November 2018

Ewan MacKenna: What started out as a joke quickly became English delusion - football was never coming home

England's Harry Kane (right) and Harry Maguire look dejected at the final whistle after the FIFA World Cup, Semi Final match at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. Wednesday July 11, 2018. Adam Davy/PA Wire.
England's Harry Kane (right) and Harry Maguire look dejected at the final whistle after the FIFA World Cup, Semi Final match at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. Wednesday July 11, 2018. Adam Davy/PA Wire.
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

For those located on many parts of the planet yesterday, their commentator for the World Cup semi-final was none other than Peter Drury.

And for all of those who had never experienced the distortion of reality that seems conjoint with the most overblown football nation there is, they didn't have long to wait for a small sample. In fact they got it as Gareth Southgate exited the Moscow tunnel.

"The man who has changed English football with his humanity, humility, common sense, and sensitivity," he beamed as part of a poetic build-up that went too far given what they'd actually done.

Of course Drury was excited and rightly so, as such a game has been a long time coming for his nation and he was clearly proud. But how many have stopped and asked what his assertion was based on? How many paused and wondered what this coach has done in a nascent career to earn the tag of a good manager, never mind a human being bordering on a sainthood?

This was part of a larger trend over recent weeks though, for there were other trite and inflated tributes that will have gotten the nodding response too, as most don't bother to drill down anymore.

In a way it was another fascinating and slightly depressing portent around modern sociology as if people can't see what's in front of them for all the propaganda, never mind think for themselves. Instead their opinion lazily becomes no more than what they are told the most. They say the average person tells four lies a day, taking them to 1,460 a year, and 87,600 by the time they're 60. That's probably on the low side for those that are excited by England at a World Cup.

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Alan Shearer pre-match said that this team were already heroes and this was the chance to become legends. But why? Many others have talked repeatedly about leaders all over the pitch. But where and when? More will now say they overachieved. But how? There's even the obviousness of the credit-where-due line doing the rounds without suggesting for what exactly such credit is due for.

This should be seen for what it is, not what some want it to be, as when you build your home on the sand and it's washed away, you don't go back looking to live there. When you set up a Ponzi scheme and it's brought down by the authorities, you don't still expect to get paid. But in a baffling way, with England's predictable exit, they want it both ways.

None of that is to try and suck the fun from a besieged nation that badly needed it across the last three weeks. Nor is it an I-told-you-so after the event for it has been obvious since the first game to anyone with a cold detachment from fandom and hysteria. The problem when it comes to England though is the raw emotion they invoke means that few manage to view them through a neutral prism.

Say something that's perceived to be negative and one side will put it down to bitterness and nationalism and a need to grow up and mature out of the past. Say something perceived as positive and the other side will label you treacherous and a turncoat.

So the only way to look at the reality is to remove such emotion. To do that, imagine that group of players were assembled by a club you've no feeling for in a league you don't care for. Now consider the team, the bench, the body of work, the opposition, the results.

Impressed?

The stats are not good. In six games in Russia this is a country that beat only Tunisia, Panama and Sweden in normal time, yet are now heroes? You only find leaders when under pressure and when both Colombia and Croatia pressed them, who was it exactly that stood up to earn that accolade? And how can you overachieve via a set of results that saw you triumph against nobody that started the tournament with shorter odds than you or above you in the world rankings, before finally being bullied out of the competition by a team with longer odds and who are lower in the rankings?

Had their run of results at the tournament been a series of friendlies in the run in, most would have said they'd no chance. And they didn't, no matter how many were sucked into the hulking frenzy. Those of us who like the underdog couldn't even take pleasure in any of it, as part of being an underdog involves beating those you shouldn't on the way to challenging for what you shouldn't. Neither happened as the biggest problem at this World Cup was the way the draw worked out. 

Tuesday was like peering into the elite class of a Champions League final, while last night was about the honest limitations of a Europa League final. Such a competition should be about witnessing the highest standards in the latter stages but fortune took that from us.

It meant that the key strategic move Gareth Southgate made was about getting into the bottom half of the draw via losing a group game to a second-string team. That hardly deserves high praise, even if it did allow his team to bumble through. Against Colombia without their best player who didn't push up; against Sweden without a best player who couldn't push up.

You can only beat what's in front of you, but what's in front of you is hugely important when critiquing in real time and remembering and rating after that time has passed. Yet as England went further, all those pre-tournament positives about there being no pressure on this squad changed because, what started out a joke around it coming home, began to be believed and accepted based on delusion. As an example of warped thinking, before yesterday, who was the top midfielder and who was the top striker they faced? Against Croatia they finally ran into Ivan Perisic who tried and nearly beat them by himself, and Mario Mandzukic who did beat them.

ivan.jpg
Croatia's Ivan Perisic celebrates

Live by the sword of decent-but-not-great, die by that same sword.

It's damning that this was also the first opponent they'd faced that were comfortable in possession and who could press. That is a massive indictment of international football, and also shows the travesty of how this tournament has panned out in that they got this far without being tested. Still, it resulted in this being a house of cards built outside on a gusty day with an inevitable conclusion.

Had England found themselves in the top half they would have been long gone home, as their standard deserved and ought to have dictated. John Stones was a mistake waiting to happen when not allowed to play ball - in a way similar to David Luiz although inferior - and we got it as he switched off for the goal that put them out. Dele Alli is okay but his form has been on a down-slope for an elongated period. Ashley Young is just poor. Jesse Lingard is out of his depth. So here was a side with a questionable defence, a non-existent midfield, and with Harry Kane gone missing for the past week, and people felt they ought to have been in a decider?

No thanks.

And that was an issue when talking about them on this run. Many judged them on results prior to their exit rather than scratching the surface a little and looking at what was under those results. Just as beating Colombia and Sweden didn't make them a very good team, losing to Croatia doesn't make them a bad team. The truth lies somewhere in between, as it always did.

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