Football journalism is often about trying to fit a narrative around matches and events: it is the process of integrating individual games into a story about how a team is performing and where it is going. With international football, this is done as well, but – as there are less matches, a high turnover of players and lengthy periods with no matches – it is harder to work out what this ‘narrative’ is. It is like plotting a line on a graph based on a few, sparsely-placed points.
It is hard to assess how good the best international sides are because it is generally only during international tournaments that they play each other competitively. In qualifying games they are normally playing significantly weaker sides (especially in Europe). Friendly games are obviously less reliable, being uncompetitive and involving teams that aren’t at full strength. At international tournaments, teams play just a handful of matches – much less than the number of games in a club league season. Does such a small number of games give a reliable picture of how good a team actually is, and whether it is improving or getting worse?
Examining England’s performances at the 2002 World Cup is a perfect example of this. In qualification we only just avoided the play-offs for it thanks to a late Beckham equaliser in a 2-2 draw against Greece. Then at in the group stages, if it weren’t for a 1-0 win against Argentina, we wouldn’t have got through the group stage. The goal in the win came from a penalty taken by Beckham, again. After beating Denmark 3-0 in the round of 16, we lost to Brazil in the quarter-finals. Brazil’s winning goal was a freakish Ronaldinho free-kick. Essentially, so much of football boils down to individual decisions. Of course, the better team is still the most likely to score and ultimately win in a match, but the quirks of luck and chance are not ironed out in a short knock-out competition in the same way as in a league season.
However in England the media gets worked up over every performance, over-analysing it to death. This is often counter-productive, at least for fans, as we swing from having unrealistically high expectations to thinking we are terrible. However I think the England team is entering a new era where there will be less hysteria and more calm rationality in how we view the national side, and there are several factors behind this.
Firstly, the Football Association has gone with pragmatic and – whisper it – boring Roy Hodgson to be England manager. In the eyes of the media, although Roy is an Englishman (which is apparently essential – just look how successful we were under Steve McClaren, Kevin Keegan and Glen Hoddle…) it was a bad decision because now it will not be Harry Redknapp taking press conferences and providing ample back-page fodder over the summer and beyond. Secondly, going into Euro 2012, England’s chances don’t look particularly good. With the ‘golden generation’ on the way out, we will find it harder to deceive ourselves that our first eleven and squad is the best in the world. We will take a new-looking squad, with a new manager, to Poland and Ukraine.
Thirdly, expectations of the country as a whole have been dampened since the poor performance at World Cup 2010. An over-expectant public can only put up with so many underwhelming tournament performances. Normally in the build-up to competitions we get hyped up from Sun back pages and from reading interviews that famous football names give to the English media where they tactically tip England for success. The build-up to this summer seems to me to be less imposing than the general build-up to in international tournaments. Competition for sports fans’ attention also comes from this summer’s Olympics, of course.
The Premier League may also have taken attention away from the national side. Even if it is not as strong as it was a few years ago, it has been exciting and dramatic this season, with high-scoring matches and genuine unpredictability at the top. Joey Barton claimed on Newsnight recently that Team England is for southerners; is it increasingly is a far lower priority for fans than their clubs? Even in the summer, the churning of transfer rumours keep interest in club football alive.
Hopefully this summer (and afterwards) we as England fans can be more rational and level-headed about the team. Going out in the group stage would not necessarily mean we are the new Andorra or San Marino; getting to the semi-finals or above would be a welcome surprise, but not mean we are the best in the world.