England won’t win till its players know the meaning of ‘playing for your country’

On Saturday, I fantasised about the idea that Divine Providence might somehow have decreed that it would be England’s turn to lift the cup at South Africa 2010! So much for all that, then.

What sort of providential reading can I make of England’s 4-1 drubbing (correction, 4-2 drubbing) at the hands, or rather feet, of our greatest adversary? Well, I guess it wasn’t meant to be, as they say. But if you believe in Providence – the idea that everything that happens in our lives is the manifestation of a divine ordinance that ultimately works to the benefit of all – then another way of saying the same thing is that it was meant to be: it was our turn to lose, again, and the Germans’ turn to win.

The Germans have been gracious in victory – rather more than the English popular press has been magnanimous in defeat. And perhaps their ability to accept victory modestly, and the unwillingness of many in the public eye in England to accept defeat without blaming others, provide the moral justification for the Germans to have won the tie at all, even if the match did turn on a moment of injustice.

What sort of just God, one might ask, would allow the travesty of England’s disallowed second goal, when the ball was a foot or more over the goal line as everyone watching around the world could plainly see? Well, not everything that appears unjust to us is God’s fault, nor does it appear unjust to everyone. God allows ‘human error’, and that was evident in spades yesterday; and, after all, it’s FIFA president Sepp Blatter who’s put up a one-man defence against introducing goal-line technology, not God. Perhaps God, who was also watching the match, was sending us and Sepp Blatter a little message about the absurdity of not using the technology and common sense at our disposal.

And the Germans certainly seem to be viewing the disallowed goal as ‘justice’, albeit of the poetic, providential kind: as pay-back for Geoff Hurst’s second goal in the 1966 World Cup final that did not cross the line, according to them, but was allowed all the same, and which provided a crucial turning point in the match, which we went on to win. A 4-1 win for Germany (actually, 4-2, as we all saw) in apparently unjust circumstances to reverse that previous 4-2 win for England that equally appeared to turn – depending on your point of view – on an injustice.

It would be almost impossible not to see the ‘hand of God’ in such an ironic twist of fate, or Providence. Yes, the hand of God can reveal itself through a refereeing error and the act of cheating of a football genius, especially if the right and best team still wins at the end of the day, as Germany did yesterday.

Will two wrongs now make a right? Have old scores finally been settled, and are we now even – level on aggregate, so to speak? Can we get over 44 years of hurt alongside the wounds of the present?

These are the questions yesterday’s game is asking of us at a moral level, or that God is asking us through yesterday’s events. If football, in the words of the legendary Bill Shankley, is more important than life and death, what do we do when we pick up the threads of our collective life as a nation once the football and the shouting are over? What lessons if any can we, the English nation, learn from our failings on the football field?

Well, it seems to me, the two things our players lacked most of all, apart from cohesive team work and a coherent game plan, was passion for the country and the will to win. Passion and determination cover a lot of footballing sins and have often carried the England side through gruelling World Cup duels in the past. They briefly flared up in the ten-minute spell when England scored twice (but only once officially) at the end of the first half, but we did not maintain that spirit in the second half.

The players in our national side often say they feel it is an honour to put on the shirt and wear the Three Lions on their breast. Yes, it is an honour – but it’s an honour that has to be earned by the manner in which the wearer conducts himself on the playing field and is not something to which that footballer is somehow entitled through the mere fact of having been selected to represent the nation.

Our footballers need to learn what it means to play for England. This isn’t just some feather in their collection of international caps: something that merely enhances their CV of footballing accomplishments, and boosts their egos and bank accounts. It’s something that confers duty and a serious responsibility: to play for the country and not just for themselves and their personal roll call of success.

If our players really believed in their hearts that ‘England expects each man to do his duty’, then there’d be no such lily-livered, spineless performances again: every man would genuinely give their utmost, and focus every thought and strain every sinew towards the task of winning for the sake of the devoted England fans in the stadium and all their compatriots back home.

But you can’t blame the players alone. In a way, they merely reflect England’s national malaise. It’s not just our footballers who lack ambition for the country, it’s the country itself that shies away from greatness. We can’t expect our footballing ambassadors to project pride in the English nation and to demonstrate the unwavering will to win if the English at large do not have the will to be a great nation and to win on the world stage.

It’s nobody’s fault – least of all, God’s – that it has come to this for England: ignominy on the greatest stage on earth, and a political and liberal establishment at home that despises the very concept of the English nation, let alone the idea of taking pride in it. But if the England team is going to be restored to the position of pre-eminence that was once rightly its own – dodgy extra-time goal notwithstanding – then this will have to be the consequence of a collective reawakening of English self-belief and a restructuring of the game of football in its home country so that players, fans and lovers of England alike unite around the common task of making the national team a statement of collective pride in England and all it has to offer to the world.

We need now to stop looking back nostalgically to a golden age of the past, which only allows us to wallow complacently in the inadequacies of the present. We need to focus on a planned future of success: not for the FA, not for Wayne Rooney, and not for the hundred and one corporate sponsors – but for the country.

Bill Shankley was right: football could mean life or death for England – the nation that invented it and whose very identity it is so central to. And if football is ever to come home to England, and the Three Lions that never roared are to be shaken from their slumber, then the whole country must back the changes required and make it clear what we expect of those who play in our name.

And if that happens, then yesterday’s disappointment may well have served its purpose.

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2 Responses

  1. I agree….
    My meeting with a couple of England WAGS last week sort of confirms what you are saying…

    When I told them about the passion I had for England 365, and how it wasn’t anything to do with singing GStheQ, but was all about getting national empowerment across the whole spectrum of our nation……. they just looked blankly at me… I honestly believed they thought the whole England, 3 lions, flag waving stuff was only relevant every football tournament…

    http://wakinghereward.blogspot.com/2010/06/alfie-two-wags-and-fabio.html

  2. The half-time talk-in with Fabz and the boyz must have sounded like a centre court match betwixt the Williams’ girls – all gruntin’ and spittin’.
    To hear the soccer cogniscenti it would appear that England was the only team that turned up in South Africa with an expectation of winning, all the other participants just turned up to make up the numbers..
    Next time only those teams that exhibit the expectation of winning need bother attending.

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