The English way to lose at football is with drama, and as much delirious hubris as a 90-minute game, plus extra time and penalties—in short, a total national nervous breakdown—can encompass. Add dark irony, or tears, or should-have-beens. The nation, as one, typically cannot believe the referee didn’t award that free kick at that key moment. Oh no, descend millions of heads in hands…it’s gone to penalty shootout.
We do not—national pride and all that—crash out of the World Cup meekly, having lost two matches, and wind up humiliatingly eliminated not as a result of those two matches but because of the shock success of another team.
But that is football-mad England’s sad, dispiriting tale of World Cup 2014: We leave the competition not with a bang but a whimper, after Costa Rica’s surprise 1-0 victory over Italy in Group D on Friday. We are still down to play Costa Rica on Tuesday, but the result is inconsequential. At least the Costa Ricans’ place in the last 16 is thoroughly, hearteningly deserved: Their games against Uruguay and Italy have shown how seriously they should be taken as giant-slayers, and contenders. England could learn a lot from them.
“The World Cup for me would have been a better place with England in it, but you have to earn the right to stay in a tournament. Unfortunately for us, we have not done that, former captain Rio Ferdinand told the BBC.
The fact that the United States remains in the competition is especially galling: Football is our game. The national refrain Friday night is an all-round “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
An anti-climactic end is not the World Cup storyline that English fans anticipated. It’s not that, as a country, England is bullish enough to expect victory. Part of the football bug in England is the tantalizing, almost-alien prospect of winning big, burnished by years of failure and if-onlys. The notion of winning has a typically English mordancy attached to it. The willing masochism of being an England supporter is innate.
Observe the lyrics of "Three Lions," the laddishly-chanted song originally released in 1996 for that year’s European Championship: “Thirty years of hurt / Never stopped me dreaming.” Everything in England’s football culture is still wired to the elation around our victory in the 1966 World Cup. The yearning of the song is in the gap it evokes between belief and reality, hope against hope: the pain and glory of the national game.
Given the length of time elapsed between 1966 and now, the English football fan’s relationship with the national team is best encapsulated as a long, crisis-strewn marriage, without the benefit of couples counseling and with the certainty that crisis follows crisis. But it is impossible to walk away.
England, especially at moments like the World Cup, is football-obsessed; town and city centers during major competitions are a blurry mass of beer-drinkers draped in St. George’s flags. If a goal is scored, the streets reverberate with cheers and honking horns. And when we lose, well…then we express the depth of our misery with either the sober English way of looking down and being gloomy, or—fueled by furious glugging of lager—fighting in the street.
Now, with World Cup failure, the country can unite for another favorite sport: looking for suitable heads to be placed, sacrificially, on platters.
After England’s 2-1 defeat against Uruguay on Thursday, the team’s manager, Roy Hodgson, said he wouldn’t quit the job. “I don’t have any intention to resign. I’ve been really happy with the way the players have responded to the work we’ve tried to do. I’m bitterly disappointed, of course, but I don’t feel I need to resign, no. On the other hand, and if the Football Association think I’m not the right man to do the job, that will be their decision and not mine.”
The FA’s chairman, Greg Dyke, strongly signaled the organization’s support of Hodgson, who is contracted to stay in the post through the Euro 2016 championships in France. “We’re supportive of Roy Hodgson, we’ve asked him to stay as manager,” Dyke said. “We do not see any value in changing. We think Roy has done a good job and it is an approach over four years and we hope to do better in the European Championships.”
Dyke has also said his eyes are on the prize of the 2022 World Cup, which he believes England can win, “but I think it means lots of changes in English football. I think there is a real chance that we can develop and win in 2022—that is the aim.”
Former England winger Chris Waddle attributed England’s exit to the professional league at home. “The Premier League is different to any league the world and that is our big problem,” he said. “It’s frustrating, because we have everything we need—money, facilities—but it comes down to coaching, and we have to get something right about producing players. The Premier League is a great advert for our football but it does our national team no good whatsoever.”
The one perhaps-positive upshot of such a quiet, sad exit is that the hand-wringing may not be as hysterical as before, although if the manager escapes blame for the team’s failure at the World Cup, the scalping spotlight may fall instead on the team’s captain, the popular Steven Gerrard, and squad.
Apparently, last Sunday, Gerrard warned the team “of the long, miserable summer facing the entire England entourage should they end up watching the World Cup knockout phase from the safe distance of a belated summer holiday,” according to BBC Sport. Now that has come to pass, and both team and fans are forced to watch the competition play out without England’s participation. They can also listen ruefully to “Three Lions”: The “thirty years of hurt” will become 50 before the vista of Euro 2016—because, as any England supporter knows, there’s always next time.