England’s last two tournament appearances have, so the story goes, come to be defined as much by glittering off-field hubris as by their dismal exits on it. The enduring image of 2006 remains the circus at Baden-Baden– redolent as it was with the broadsheet-friendly narrative of nouveau vulgarians overrunning a seat of the Grand Tour. The 2010 South African campaign, meanwhile, became defined by the austere hermitude of Bafokeng, with its own internal symbolism of fretful colonialists cosseting themselves away – cowering fearfully from the locals behind wire fences and consignments of Heinz Beans. Even Portugal 2004, an uncommonly enjoyable experience for team and fans alike, is remembered by many for the pseudo-motivational aggrandisement that saw the training base festooned with off-the-shelf waffle. “If not you, who? If not now, when?” boomed the murals – the FA’s logistics team presumably having run out of paint before the answers: “any number of superior teams” and “when you stop relying on players preoccupied with their own Jungian Hero Complex” could be added.
No more. The England team which has made quietly effective progress at Euro 2012 has become an emblem for The New Humility; an overblown meekness that could only be more ostentatious if the players eschewed their tracksuits for sackcloth and ash. Throughout their stay in Poland, every effort has been made to recalibrate the public perception from a gang of gilded ne’er-do-wells to model tourists, a bunch of ordinary Joes humbled and happy to be there.
Firstly, there’s the location. A £300-a-night boutique hotel might seem a curious way to demonstrate a newfound common touch, yet thanks to its position in the centre of Krakow the Hotel Stary represents a significant shift in emphasis. No longer squirreled off in a cavernous training complex, the subtext is clear: “by being amongst the people, we are at one with the people.” Perhaps worried the point was too subtle, the players have been required to retain a visibility throughout with open training sessions and public walkabouts – contractually-obliged meet-and-greets at which the carefully-orchestrated message of togetherness is somewhat undermined by the phalanx of antsy-looking heavies employed to keep the rabble at bay. Players and coaching staff have diligently tried to downplay expectations, with John Terry tellingly kept at least 20 yards away from a microphone at all times. Instead, the message passed down from on high has been the chiding instructions for players to “remember that you are part of the wider world” as they’re despatched for another round of baby-kissing.
It’s all deeply cynical stuff, of course. The FA are acutely aware that the public mood surrounding Team England is at a decade-long low, with the open dissent in Cape Town – not to mention Wayne Rooney’s tart riposte to camera – still fresh in the mind of anxious bean-counters reliant on the continuing popularity, if not prosperity, of the national side for the viability of the Associations gleaming albatross, Wembley Stadium. Indeed, as a ploy to, forgive me, “detoxify the brand”, England’s glad-handing comes across as a piece of PR fluff every bit as disingenuous as David Cameron forcing down a sausage roll to prove his man-of-the-people credentials. No harm in that, perhaps. After all, what other million-pound organisations are free from the dissembling touch of media management?
Yet whilst the FA’s charm offensive certainly seems to be having the desired effect, with the ersatz earthiness lapped by the self-loathing sections of the national press who wax loquacious about “realistic expectations” and “greater modesty” – in the process divesting themselves of responsibility for elevating hopes to absurd levels or spending previous tournaments gleefully chasing the players’ retinue for a sight of waggish thigh – behind the positive editorials the underlying mood of the coverage is altogether more unpalatable. Take, for example, the visit to Auschwitz. During this, the FA media machine was clearly in full back-covering swing, with the micro-managing of the agenda extending to briefings that players had worn tracksuits on medical advice and thus pre-empting any faux-outraged Mail editorials that could be laid at the Association’s door. Without such an open goal, the focus of the coverage was instead heavy with cynical, sneering declarations of hope that the trip would offer the players “some perspective” – their extravagant lives offered up as sacrificial lambs to be cast egregiously as counterpoints to the most profound example of human suffering.
Likewise, it’s increasingly hard to ignore the fact that large swathes of the coverage of this new-look humble England seems based on the view that in being thrown to the mob in Krakow’s Main Square the players are being publicly emasculated – carrying out acts of compulsory penitence for the apparent hubris of their predecessors. That such “punishment” has played so well back home is the inevitable consequence of the Bushtucker Trial mindset that blends fascination and revulsion with fame and wealth; an aspirational resentment that lies behind the frequent calls for such upstarts to be “taken down a peg or two”. By playing up to such ingrained prejudice with such gusto the FA appear keen to restate their role as masters and reduce the status of the players to forelock-tugging serfs, rebalancing a relationship that has swung dramatically in the players’ favour in the last 25 years. Where previously the balancing of power between the players and the stuffed shirts of the FA was seen as a positive, now the reapplication of the yoke has been lauded. It’s here, arguably, we reach the nub of the matter – that the recasting of the England team mirrors an alarming shift in mood that has taken hold in austerity Britain, a cap-doffing deference to supposed superiors nowhere more depressingly manifested than during the show of grinning servitude that was the Jubilee celebrations. This, the message runs, is Know Your PlaceBritain, where a return to the Golden Age – be it fiscal or football – can only be achieved by the re-establishment of the Old Order.
All things considered, I’d rather have Baden Baden.
Posted by Ron Hamilton