It remains one of the happiest snaps in postwar England’s family album. On July 30 1966 at Wembley, a yellow-clad 40-year-old Queen Elizabeth hands England’s captain Bobby Moore the little gold Jules Rimet trophy. She, he and it look gorgeous in the London sunshine. The stadium is awash in British union jacks, the preferred flag of England supporters in those simpler days before the union began to fray. It’s the last time England ever won a trophy — an omission they want to rectify at the same ground on Sunday evening in the final of Euro 2020 against Italy.
The great English question for 55 years has been: why don’t we win anymore? I have criss-crossed the globe covering England’s failures from St Etienne to São Paulo, and have learnt that this debate transcends football. When people say the England team ought to win World Cups, or when they call for a more continental European playing style, or grumble about spoiled overpaid players, they tend also to be talking about the nature of England.
England’s biggest matches are the modern nation’s main communal experiences. Perhaps half of England’s 56m people will watch Sunday’s final. By contrast, even the Queen’s much-awaited Christmas speech last year drew just 8.1m British viewers. The traditional cement of the nation — churches, trade unions, social clubs of various kinds, even pubs — has been weakening for decades.
If a football match matters to that many people, it’s because it’s more than just a football match. The England team is the nation made flesh. Those 11 young men in white shirts who will take the knee before kick-off on Sunday are England, less individual than the sovereign, more alive than the national flag (or flags). What do the 55-year arguments about the team reveal about Englishness?
Even by 1966, the “declinist” narrative about Britain had taken hold. The idea was that an exceptional nation had lost its rightful status as a superpower. Postwar Britain was losing its empire, and was being overtaken economically by West Germany and France.
England’s post-1966 footballing failures served as metaphors for national decline, especially because so many of them — in 1970, 1990 and 1996 — came against Germany, the very nation that Britain had repeatedly defeated in its superpower days. To quote the idiotic but slightly tongue-in-cheek English supporters’ chant: “Two world wars and one World Cup, doodah.”
With constant disappointment came a debate about how England should play. Most British males born between about 1900 and 1950 grew up in a martial tradition, worshipping soldiers rather than footballers. England teams were expected to play warrior football, built on unthinking obedience to their commander, manly tackles and brave headers. Off duty, they drank like soldiers.
Bobby Robson, born in 1933, England’s manager from 1982 to 1990, was diagnosed by the football writer Brian Glanville as obsessed with the second world war. But, to be fair to Robson, he was also obsessed with the first world war. Here he is eulogising his best player, Bryan Robson: “You could put him in any trench and know he’d be the first over the top . . . He wouldn’t think, well, Christ, if I put my head up there it might get shot off. He’d say, c’mon, over the top.”
At half-time of a game in 1989, while England’s captain Terry Butcher was having his bleeding head wound bandaged, Robson told the team: “Have a look at your skipper. Let none of you let him down.” Britain’s tabloids, the Greek chorus of the England team, approved: “YOU’RE A BLOODY HERO SKIPPER.”
At the time there were two main ways of talking about football: football as war, or football as art. England managers trusted warriors like Butcher or Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter over artists such as Peter Osgood or Rodney Marsh.
England’s travelling supporters tended to mimic the martial tradition. Many times, covering England’s games in Europe, I watched them seize the strategic heights of some unfortunate city — typically the square around the town hall — in a sort of parody of their grandfathers’ invasion of Europe. They would lay out their flags, chant “Ten German Bombers”, and shout at passers-by: “If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts.” In stadiums, they would always boo the opposing team’s anthem.
This nativism could sometimes be turned against Englishmen who weren’t perceived as truly English. Ever since Viv Anderson became the first black man to play for England in 1978, racists have felt that the nation incarnated in the team should be white. I remember watching an England game on TV in a London pub in the early 1990s: whenever England’s John Barnes got the ball, one man made monkey noises while his office mates tittered.
Meanwhile, continental European teams had developed a collectivist style of fast-passing football. It seemed to work, but Graham Taylor, England’s manager from 1990 to 1993, preferred long punts and big tackles: “Our failure has not been because we have played the English way but because we haven’t. Bloody football should be honest, open, clear, passionate. Part of a nation’s culture, its heritage, is the way it plays its sport. And the British way is with passion and commitment.”
However, Taylor’s failure, culminating in defeat to Norway — all captured in the immortal fly-on-the-wall documentary An Impossible Job — killed off the idea of English exceptionalism in football tactics. He was replaced by the continental Englishman Terry Venables, nicknamed “El Tel” since his stint coaching Barcelona.
Ever since, the trend both in the England team and the Premier League has been towards continental passing and improved fitness. One freezing spring morning in 1996 I visited Aston Villa’s training ground near Birmingham for a magazine gig involving a head-to-head computer game between a nerd and a young Aston Villa defender named Gareth Southgate.
Southgate turned out to be a pleasant, chatty boy with a large nose. After the computer game, more general chatter ensued, and at one point Villa’s assistant coach, Paul Barron, a fitness fanatic, decided to measure our body-fat percentages. Southgate took off his shirt and let Barron attach what looked like electrodes to him.
Only 9 per cent of Southgate consisted of fat.
“I’m glad I’m not that skinny,” I said, taking off my shirt. Barron stared at my stomach. “Maybe we should just use the slap test,” he said.
“What’s the slap test?” I asked.
“Slap you in the stomach and see how long it shakes.”
Southgate, still lying on the floor attached to wires, piped up politely: “Paul, this bloke has only come round to write an article.” Barron told me my body fat ratio was 16 per cent. Southgate reassured me: “Just go to the gym for three hours every night for the rest of your life, and you’ll be fine.”
He was thinking of going into journalism, and we agreed he would write a diary of the Euro 96 championship for the FT, but it never happened. That’s a shame, because he turned into one of the tournament’s main characters: his missed penalty in the semi-final against Germany sealed England’s ritual elimination.
During Euro 96, a song emerged that remains the go-to favourite of England fans. While England were thumping the continental sophisticates of the Netherlands 4-1, the crowd at Wembley spontaneously began to sing it:
Thirty years of hurtNever stopped me dreamingFootball’s coming homeIt’s coming home!
I was sitting in the stands near the song’s co-writers, the comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, and they stood up, open-mouthed, entranced, realising they had written a folk anthem. The song’s genius is that it combines the two contradictory beliefs held by England fans: that England always loses, and that it has a manifest destiny to triumph.
England’s continental turn continued under Venables’ successor Glenn Hoddle, who had been a continental-style dissident as a player. For most of the 2001-12 period England were coached by two actual continentals in Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. Then came Roy Hodgson, a long-term Englishman émigré who spoke fluent Swedish and Italian.
Each new coach carried a heavy burden: this midsized nation with a modest tradition in international football was expected to win the World Cup. Some managers were themselves so drenched in English exceptionalism that they shared the expectation.
Ron Greenwood confessed after his disappointing reign (1977-82): “I honestly thought we could have won the World Cup in 1982.” Hoddle revealed after elimination in 1998 “my innermost thought, which was that England would win the World Cup”. Before the 2006 World Cup, Eriksson, probably just flattering English exceptionalism, said: “I think we will win it.”
But they all lost. In June 2016, four days after the English voted for Brexit, Hodgson’s team contrived to exit the European Championships against tiny Iceland — a defeat regarded by connoisseurs as the funniest of all of England’s humiliations. The English Football Association then attempted its own Brexit, replacing the faux-continental Hodgson with the archetypal English manager, Sam Allardyce.
That elimination prompted the ritual tabloid-led scapegoating of England’s supposedly overpaid and overhyped players. Sometimes their wives and girlfriends are included too. These rituals of exorcism are expressions of national self-disgust. Many Britons feel their country has become a perverted meritocracy with an unworthy elite. Class comes into it, too: young working-class Englishmen who become rich are often judged to have offended against the natural order, especially if they are black.
Defeat to Iceland also reheated football’s own immigration debate: were there too many foreign players in the Premier League? After all, if Englishmen could barely even get a game in their own league, how could they mature into internationals? Greg Dyke, then chairman of the FA, had told me in 2013: “It could be that there’s just not a pathway through. There are a lot of bog-standard foreign players playing here today.”
Yet football’s own Brexit never happened. English clubs continued to import foreigners and, as luck would have it, Allardyce lasted only one match before he was secretly filmed talking about subverting FA regulations. Post-Brexit, his successor clearly had to be an Englishman, but there were no front-rank English football managers left. So the job went to a lesser figure whose biggest managerial prize was the tinpot League Cup.
Gareth Southgate immediately performed a reverse Brexit, constructing a team that played cold-headed continental passing football. To him, football isn’t war, or art. It’s system. He is an English moderniser in the tradition of Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and, indeed, Alf Ramsey, whose “scientific management” had made England probably the fittest team in 1966.
Southgate’s project seems to be to turn England into a continental European side like Italy or Germany. He has binned English exceptionalism. Heading into the World Cup in Russia in 2018, whenever tabloid reporters asked “can we win it?”, he would point out that the ritual question was a tad premature given that England hadn’t even won a knockout match at a major tournament since 2006.
His modest, modernising internationalism won support from fans and media. To adapt TS Eliot, humankind can only bear so much reality. England’s endless eliminations, coupled with the broader decline in national status, had ended up shredding the fantasy of manifest destiny.
In 2014, when the pollsters YouGov conducted surveys in 19 participating countries before the World Cup, the most pessimistic fans (jointly with Costa Ricans) were the English: only 4 per cent expected to win. By the World Cup in Russia, 7 per cent did. English exceptionalism isn’t dead — it inspired some portion of the Brexit vote — but it has aged.
Southgate is currently the reigning national hero (always a fragile status), but in fact England’s rise preceded him. The post-Taylor continental turn worked. The Premier League’s internationalisation, far from handicapping the England side, actually helped it. Protectionists grumble that only about a third of the players in the Premier League are English, but it would be more accurate to say that a massive one-third of players in the world’s richest, most competitive league are English. That works out at more than 70 English starters per match day. That’s a large enough talent pool to staff an England 11.
Competing with the best foreigners every week has improved English players. The switch from a mostly British league to a mostly foreign one can be dated to 1995, when the European Court of Justice’s “Bosman ruling” allowed European players to play anywhere in the EU.
Let’s compare England’s performances in the era of a British league, from 1950 to 1994, to its performances since 1998. In the “British” period to 1994, England reached the quarter finals in seven out of 20 major tournaments. By contrast, in the post-1998 “international” period, when global football has been much more competitive, it has reached six quarter finals in 12 attempts. England’s win percentage has also risen since the early 2000s. In short, foreign immigration seems to have improved the team. In English football at least, the “declinist” narrative is false.
During this tournament, the national debate around the England team has revolved around diversity. When England’s players knelt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter before the semi-final against Denmark, a few English fans booed while a majority applauded. In England’s cultural civil war between nativists and liberals, Southgate and his multi-ethnic team have chosen their side. He has spoken of “racial undertones” surrounding the Brexit campaign, and remarked that older people were “pining for something that isn’t there any more”.
Certain narratives pervade international football for decades, then die. Germany used to be cast as the ugly team that slew the beautiful ones, Brazil as the “artists” of “the beautiful game”, and Africans as future winners of the World Cup. England’s eternal failure has been one of football’s favourite stories. Should it suddenly end on Sunday, that would change the nation’s sense of self.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist
Data visualisation by Keith Fray and Steven Bernard
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