#8: Celebrating England’s Glorious History Of Failure

There’s just something about cheering on whoever the English is playing against at a major tournament that adds to the enjoyment of it all. Everyone loves an underdog, but everyone loves to hate the villain even more. For many countries, but especially Ireland (and to a similar extent Scotland and Wales), that villain is England.

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It’s pretty much a national pastime at this stage, especially when Ireland aren’t at the World Cup themselves. So what is it about the Old Enemy that we get so much joy out of their oft-repeated demise?

england world cup
via Wayne Mulligan/Ireland Simpsons Memes

Well, for one, they are known as the Old Enemy for a reason. Centuries of colonialism and imperialism have not won them too many fans, not least in this country. The legacy of bastardry doesn’t really dissipate much over time.

In fact, it still influences how the English view their football team today. As a former conqueror of the world, many of their fans feel they should be on top of the pile more often than not.

This leads to the usual hype and hysteria that we see from England supporters every other year. Ireland are no strangers to over-estimating ourselves before performing meekly on a big stage (see: our blasted optimism heading into Euro 2012, or the recent drubbing at the hands of Denmark), but there’s something unbearably grating about the English attitude when it comes to international football.

england world cup

Yet there are many football fans in England who don’t actually support the national team. If you are a fan of one of the major clubs, your passion is likely sated by the drama and glory experienced on a yearly basis in the Premier League and Champions League. But there’s also the fact that so many of them just don’t identify with this team and never have, partly down to the record of violence and hooliganism displayed by certain sections of their travelling contingent.

That, and the never-ending cycle of failure.

For our latest podcast we decided to chronicle this unwanted record of their’s: England have only won two knockout games of football, against Denmark and Ecuador, in the last twenty years.

Why twenty years? Euro 96 was the last time that the English national team warranted any sense of true optimism. Not only was the side pretty decent, they were hosting the tournament during an era of unprecedented positivity for the island as a whole. It was the era of Britpop and New Labour, replacing post-punk and Margaret Thatcher as the signposts for a new generation. And best of all, a football song that didn’t make you want to burst your own eardrums.

 


One line at the start of that famous song that has always resonated with me: “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before.” Which is exactly how I’ve felt watching England fail to clear every hurdle put in their way over the past two decades. It’s the same thing happening over and over again.

Excluding 1966, England’s greatest moments have come in the near-misses of Italia 90 and Euro 96, where they reached the semi-finals on both occasions. The buoyancy gained from the latter tournament didn’t last much longer after France 98, however.

There was no shame in losing to a side like Argentina, and they were in fact quite impressive in taking them to penalties after drawing 2-2 while playing most of the match with 10 men. But it was the manner of David Beckham’s sending that sent fans and press alike into a frenzy.


Beckham became an easy target following their exit from the World Cup, assuming the role of national hate figure. One tabloid ran the subtle headline: “BECKHAM’S RUINED IT FOR US.” West Ham fans hung an effigy of the Man United star before the second game of the season. Curiously, the man himself calls it one of his top career moments, telling GQ this year that it “made me mature very quickly”.

In this writer’s opinion that tournament and the overblown reaction to it by the English broke something inside the psyche of the team. The football culture changed again, for the worse. Ever since then you can tell the players are playing under enormous pressure, fearing the worst instead of hoping for the best. After all, they know full well that one mistake could see them become the next pariah.

Frank Lampard said as much in a recent interview:


France 98 set in motion the series of events that has lead to England players repeatedly playing within themselves, often making fools of themselves while they’re at it.

Ronaldinho’s shot going over the head of David Seaman in 2002. Going out on penalties to Portugal (twice). Wayne Rooney’s stamp on Ricardo Carvalho. The Golden Generation not qualifying for Euro 2008. That would be enough for most nations to have nightmares for years, but it doesn’t stop there.

Looking back, South Africa 2010 feels like the cherry on top of a mediocre pie. Rob Green’s howler versus a United States team who should have been put to the sword. Drawing 0-0 with Algeria and Rooney saying straight to the camera, “it’s nice when your own fans boo you.” But the pièce de résistance was still to come.

Germany scored an embarrassingly simple goal to kick things off in the round of 16, before Lukas Podolski hit a cracking finish. Matthew Upson got one back, but it was to get worse for the English. Lampard had a shot come down off the bar and go over the line, which should have made it 2-2 but it bounced straight back out. The referee didn’t give it, in a reversal of fortunes from the 1966 meeting between the two countries.


Thomas Muller would go on to score two goals on the counter-attack, inflicting England’s biggest defeat at a major tournament. A particularly pleasing sight was that of Mesut Ozil absolutely roasting Gareth Barry for pace on the fourth and final goal. At that moment I understood the true meaning of Schadenfreude.

Andrea Pirlo panenka’d England out of Euro 2012, while they scarpered out of Brazil 2014 with a solitary point to their name. But nothing could ever hold a candle to 2010, surely.

england world cup

Then came Iceland. A small island nation with a population of 300,000 who had never qualified for anything before Euro 2016. And they beat the English, 2-1.

The delight in Iceland’s victory just about greater than the glee in seeing England lose to a so-called minnow of international football. As everyone’s second favourite team in France, was there anyone could be happier for the land of ice and fire to defeat more than the English? And to cap it all off, there was Steve McClaren.


It’s cruel to point and laugh, but we can’t help it. Here’s to another summer of watching Ingerland making a show of themselves.

Intro theme by The Shaker Hymn.

Gigi Buffon: When Greatness Ends

In the aftermath of Gianluigi Buffon’s  likely final ever appearance in the UEFA Champions League, no superlative is too excessive to describe the Juventus legend, the greatest goalkeeper of all time, writes Ste McGovern.

In football lexicon, the word ‘genius’ might just be the most overused phrase of all. We often hear “that was a piece of genius skill” or “that goal was genius”, when such a term should be used as little as possible, reserved for only the finest moments from the finest players.

End Of An Era is another term that gets overplayed. Someone retires, “we’ll never see his like again, it’s an end of era.” A team loses a knockout tie, and it’s “that’s it, thanks for everything, bye forever”, even though it’s not always so clear cut. Eulogies were delivered on behalf of the Spain team after both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and yet they look like one of the top contenders at Russia next summer. Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and others from that glorious team are still present. So is the old era dead or is it still ongoing?

Listen to Episode 4 of Nostalgia Ultras podcast: The Milan Derby

For one man though it is less overstatement and more absolute. Buffon has been a staple of the sport, making it almost impossible to separate the position from the man. Strike up a conversation about goalkeeping with a mate and see how long it takes for the Italian shot-stopper’s name to come up. Not since Lev Yashin has someone come to define the position so comprehensively; he is the goalkeeper.

That much was evident last November when Italy drew 0-0 with Sweden at the San Siro in a playoff for the World Cup. Out of the 359 clean sheets he has amassed thus far, this must have been the worst one he has ever kept. There was the 0-0 versus AC Milan in the 2003 Champions League final that Juventus lost on penalties, but this loss cut deeper than perhaps any. The realisation that there would not only be no World Cup, but no more appearances for the Azzurri must have dawned on him at that moment.

Afterwards there was a lot of talk about how bad this team had been over two legs and the poor decision making of their manager, Giampiero Ventura. But most of the conversation centred around Gigi and the tragic end to a glorious international career that included the greatest prize of all in 2006. He won’t get one last shot at winning it again, for which everyone mourned at full-time.

It was typical of the man that in such a painful moment Buffon’s first action after the match ended was to console his teammates, many of whom will get more opportunities at major tournaments, before congratulating the Swedes one by one. He embraced Martin Olsen, his opposite number, as he fought a losing battle to hold back the tears. It’s easy to be happy for the opposition when it’s, say, Ireland who has beaten you and it has no effect on your progression to the next round of the competition, but he’s shown grace and humility in the face of bad times too.

His reaction to the penalty awarded to Real Madrid in injury time, with the score delicately poised at 3-3 on aggregate, might say otherwise. The physical nature of his confrontation with Michael Oliver was over the top, but let’s not forget his clapping of the Swedish national anthem as Italian fans unceremoniously booed it. He exuded immense character on the night, an aspect of his personality that isn’t mentioned nearly enough.

Gianluigi Buffon (via Sportsfile)

Buffon commands respect from everyone on the pitch without demanding it. That much was evident in the Sweden game when even the referee gave him a hug. That level of respect has been well earned too; it’s hard to think of anyone who has matched their longevity with such incredibly consistency. The World Cup in Brazil appeared to be a nadir for the Italian legend, a poor overall performance that indicated a career finally on the slide. But the slide never arrived, and he seemed to be better than ever at times these past few seasons as he and his beloved Juve chased European glory.

Heading into the final stretch of the season, and thus the twilight of the great man’s club career, the spotlight refocused on Gigi’s mission to finally get his hands on the famous mouse ears. It would have been a fitting end, but instead it all finished in even more ignominious circumstances at the Bernabeu Stadium tonight. Possibly the greatest player to never lift the trophy, failing to win it should not define him as a player. If there was one footballer whose career was far greater than the contents of his trophy cabinet, then it’s Gianluigi Buffon.

In many ways, the past 12 or so months has been edging closer to the end of a very special era. Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli have retired from international duty. Giorgio Chiellini might not be far behind. Last May Francesco Totti played his last match. Andrea Pirlo did so too later that year. After giving us a lifetime of memories these incredible talents will be gone in a flash.

The era is ending, but there’s still just enough time to appreciate it.

@TheNoveltyAct

This is an updated version of an article written in 2017.