Stiff Upper Lip

Home of the (Footballing) Brave: The U.S. Bested Britain in World Cup Spirit

While the U.S. went out in a blaze of World Cup glory, England’s pampered players slouched home in disgrace—and don’t even get us started on Wimbledon.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

“We dreamed and we fell short of our dream,” said Tim Howard, the new American hero, after USA’s elimination from the World Cup 2014 last week. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Heartbreaking it was, but no-one can deny the courage of the U.S. football team, and the passion of their supporters. The match was watched in the White House by President Obama, and followed across the States by everyone from Rihanna to Tom Hanks. As the final whistle blew, Tim Howard was trending on Twitter: having made more saves in the match than any other U.S. goalkeeper in World Cup history, there were calls for Howard to be elected as “U.S. Secretary of Defence”; even a White House petition to rename Reagan airport in honour of the bearded one.

As admirable as the U.S. fightback against Belgium was the pride and gusto of their fans. While English football fans might stretch to painting their faces with the cross of St George or a silly wig, the fancy dress of U.S. fans included Uncle Sam, the American Eagle, Captain America, even the Statue of Liberty. I spotted American students wandering around London last week dressed in Stars and Stripes shorts and bikini tops.

The match was nail-bitingly close: at 2-0 down in extra time, it seemed to be all over for the United States. Then, dramatically, they scored once—and almost twice— in one of the most heart-stopping finales of the World Cup thus far. The media were full of praise: “Just when the Americans seemed depleted, they rallied with renewed vitality,” wrote The New York Times. “They displayed unyielding grit and doggedness and resilience…” The U.S. head coach, Jurgen Klinsmen, summed it up: “My players went to their limits. But every one of them did their country proud.”

Here in England we’ve long scoffed at American notions of soccer, the fact that you (allegedly) don’t understand injury time and the off-side rule— but their battle against Belgium proved that finally, proper football has come to America. Your team may have been beaten, but at least you fought until the final second. And you know what? We admire you.

The flair, spirit and technical brilliance we’ve seen from the U.S. and other nations in the past few weeks only compounds the humiliation of our English “football” team. I use the term “football” loosely here. After crashing out of the World Cup even earlier than normal (our worst performance since 1958) our over-paid, over-pampered England flops were photographed slinking off their private jet, watched only by a solitary airport cleaner. On London buses you can still see Adidas’ (now rather ironic) England 2014 campaign slogan: All In Or Nothing. Turns out it was “nothing”!

While the UK Premier League, packed with the crème de la crème of foreign talent, flies high, England’s international performance has deteriorated since that long ago 1966 World Cup victory. Where are we going so wrong? Justin Cartwright in the Evening Standard had a few ideas:

“… we have a national team with players who can barely control the ball, players with such poor technique that they can’t pass accurately, others who are so one-footed that they are utterly predictable, and many more who lack any sense of cohesion or purpose. The Germans radiate a kind of discipline; passes are firm and accurate and every movement seems to have a purpose. By contrast, our players look as though they are playing a game they don’t really understand with people they have never met and to a plot they haven’t fathomed.”

Some in the media even suggested that England’s lamentable performance in Brazil is due to a larger crisis of confidence: that we’re no longer sure of our place in the world. We may be lost as a nation, in the midst of a deep footballing identity crisis, but we’re still good at gentlemanly games like cricket and rugby, aren’t we?

Apparently not. I don’t understand rugby, but my boyfriend informs me: “we lost June’s test series against New Zealand—although the NZ All Blacks are the best in the world … the feeling is that England are looking good for the 2015 World Cup.” As for cricket, we’ve also just lost the test series against Sri Lanka—a further cricketing setback given our Ashes whitewash over last winter. To cap it all, Andy Murray, last year’s Wimbledon champion, has been knocked out after losing in straight sets in the quarter-final. What a summer of sporting loss!

Still, game face, nil desperandum and all that. We must remember Winston Churchill’s adage: “Success consists in going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

It’s not all bad. The 2012 Olympics were a triumph, and we’ve just launched the Tour de France’s Grand Depart in the glorious Yorkshire dales (a sort of Northern equivalent of the Pyrenees, with rain, pies, and pints). And as Wimbledon draws to a close, you can’t deny we know how to throw a tennis tournament.

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Maybe it’s time to accept that we’re fabulous at hosting sporting events, and hopeless at winning them. Now, anyone for Pimms?

Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf