Thursday 1 July 2010

England's history problem

I have a blog-post over at The New Republic's Goalpost blog, on the unbearable weight of World Cup history.

The mystery is why the World Cup winners club is so much of a closed shop. The very last country to win the World Cup for the first time, without having the advantage of being the host nation, was Brazil in 1958.

There have been 7 winning countries and only 11 World Cup finalists in eighteen World Cups.

The Dutch are the only team in my lifetime to even make the final without being hosts or former champions.

Yet look at how the European Championship has had a different winner in each of the last six tournaments, and ten finallists in just two decades.

2008: Spain v Russia
2004: Greece v Portugal
2000: France v Italy
1996: Germany v Czech Republic
1992: Denmark v Germany
1988: Holland v Russia

By contrast, having a winning World Cup history seems to help a lot. Even great teams choke when they try to make football history at the World Cup, especially by the time they come up against Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina (who have won nine out of the last ten World Cups) in a semi-final.

But can this also illuminate the curious case of England, perhaps now the sole World Cup winner for whom the psychological contract with famous triumph has long become a curse, not a blessing with which to hurt opponents?

Even England now realise they have every reason to think of themselves more as chokers than champions.

After all, England's last three World Cup knockout stage victories over major footballing nations were against Argentina, Portugal and West Germany. Those games all took place at Wembley in the quarter, semi and final of the 1966 World Cup respectively!

By a strange symmetry, each of those nations has since knocked England out of major tournaments at least twice since, and no less than four times in Germany's case.

So has England become a nation - think Hungary, and even Scotland too - for whom the stories and myths of football glory past have long become an almost unbearable burden?

The pattern that sets England apart from the other World Cup winners is that England never made the final again.

Yet note how quickly the other six World Cup winners all did so quickly - within one (Brazil, Italy), two (Argentina, France) or three (Germany) tournaments after their first triumph. A second final took Uruguay twenty years but 1930 and 1950 were their first two appearances at the World Cup, so they were undefeated all-time champions before their narrow semi-final lost to the mighty Magyars in 1954.

Perhaps host champions particularly need that second final to confirm their place as first-rank footballing powers. Unlike the others, England were never quite contenders again. The historic price of that calamitously unlucky Mexico 1970 quarter-final defeat to the Germans, given that it probably cost England a second successive final may be even higher than we realise.

It was twelve years before England would even qualify again for the World Cup finals at all. By their 1980s return, our status as a middle-ranking power was clear. Despite a nation's willingness to suspend disbelief, we are reminded of it again at least every four years.

Perhaps the only way to now break the English pattern is to think long-term about the next generation of players, and make sure we win the bid to host the World Cup in 2018!


Those World Cup finalists in full: new winners in bold, hosts in italics.

2006: Italy - France
2002: Brazil - Germany
1998: France - Brazil
1994: Brazil - Italy
1990: Germany - Argentina
1986: Argentina - Germany
1982: Italy - Germany
1978: Argentina - Holland
1974: Germany - Holland
1970: Brazil - Italy
1966: England - Germany
1962: Brazil - Czechoslovakia
1958: Brazil - Sweden
1954: Germany - Hungary
1950: Uruguay - Brazil
1938: Italy - Hungary
1934: Italy - Czechoslovakia
1930: Uruguay - Argentina

1 comment:

Leo said...

too soon, Sunder... too soon