Change the manager, change the personnel. Change the training centre, change the conditioning. Hire a psychologist, phone Dave Brailsford or Clive Woodward. Hire their psychologists. Change the manager. Change the personnel again: make them younger, more humble. Change the mentality. Change the conditioning. In a darkened room in the Midlands, watch six years of Spanish, and Catalan, success in a silence broken only by gentle tapping on the Ipad touchscreen. Change the style. Be assiduous, like Shankly. Sweat the details. Brailsford tells you that the decimal percentages make a difference. Hire a media consultant, another psychologist, someone who’s worked with Andy Murray, someone from ‘Obama’s Camp’. Everything’s interdiscplinary, intertextual. Change the conditioning. Fly your men out eighteen months early to pick the hotel. Hire a colour therapist. Hire a music therapist. Hire a feng shui therapist. Change the style. Change the conditioning. The decimal percentages. The decimals. Your captain understands the project. The style, the conditioning, the mentality.
And yet: England stand, at the time of writing, on the edge of elimination from the World Cup Finals at the group stage, a fate they have not succumbed to since Walter Winterbottom unwisely left Brian Clough at home and took his Munich-wrecked squad to Sweden in 1958. Perhaps results will combine in England’s favour – and that combination does not strike me as impossibly unlikely – but there’s little doubt that the inquest has already begun.
I have no real interest in picking over the tactics or the team, save to give a brief account of what it feels like to watch England at this tournament, but not only at this tournament, as it has felt the same – with a couple of irreverent overturnings of the trend – since the 2004 European Championships. There is an embodied experience of watching an England international which I am sure is shared by many, and it’s one I can liken only to that of sitting on a bus in traffic, urging it to accelerate in the full knowledge that to do so in the space available is impossible. You’re grasped by a visceral perception of the chasm between the will and the reality principle; even the occasional surge forward, provided this year by Raheem Sterling, presents itself as an exception which adds to the weight of the general rule. The team look as if they’re playing it quicksand: this inertia metastasises from the game to the audience, a very real sense of deadweightedness.
What I think is interesting here is the way that this lethargy, which exists regardless of who is in the team and how they are set up to play, stands at a counterpoint to the rhetoric and iconography of leonine ‘passion’ which girds the national team. In the stands, fans display symbols of a putative English ‘indomitability’, Spitfires and – provocatively – Crusader outfits. Before the game, the coverage displays black and white headshots of the players, their faces fixed in an uncompromising grimace. If everything else changes, this extreme dichotomy between belief and the radical disbelief exemplified in the performances remains exactly the same.
There’s a kind of doublethink here which matches that of English life at large. Ron has already touched on this in his discussion of the national team’s affliction with market or capitalist realism, but we can perhaps put this in more Orwellian terms. To live in England now is to be asked to believe simultaneously that happiness is impossible – we must be ‘realistic’ – and that we are already, perhaps inherently, happy. Similarly, England must lose and cannot lose. Wayne Rooney must perform badly but he also cannot play badly. Perhaps the disorder which inevitably kicks off as history repeats itself once again is not a simple expression of disappointment but a confused articulation of what it is like to inhabit this contradiction in both sporting and political terms.
Posted by Joe Kennedy