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English hysteria over recent results is somewhat overblown.
By Ed Draper
LONDON (Friday, April 13, 2007) -- So, England's hopes of qualifying for the 2008 European championships took a bit of a dent recently.
The Three Lions drew nil-nil in a qualifier in Israel on March 24 and then beat part-timers Andorra four days later in Barcelona. The team ended the latest international soccer installment five points behind table-topping Croatia and three behind second-placed Russia. The top two teams advance.
So, with qualification to the Austria-Switzerland tournament seriously in doubt, one might expect some criticism of the players and head coach Steve McClaren? Well, you'd be right, but "some" doesn't quite cover it.
After the Israel game, a thousand pundits -- many of whom had either played for or coached similarly inept England teams in the past -- lined up to take pot shots at McClaren and Co., while heralding the end of the world as we know it. Sky Sports News -- the 24-hour station ever desperate for a story to fill airtime -- went into crisis lockdown. A never-ending stream of journalists, ex-pros and managers were wheeled in front of a presumably terrified nation. One by one they confirmed that something was very rotten in the state of England and natural order could only be restored by chopping off King McClaren's head.
It wasn't just the TV sports channels. If you turned on the radio, the doomsday predictions were haunting the airwaves. Reeling from the collective sense of panic and horror, you might feel the need to take a stroll in the fresh air to recover your composure. There was no safety on the streets of London though. Everywhere you walked news stands would be fronted by huge banners shouting out what by now everyone surely knew -- "McClaren Must Go!"
Yes, the spite-driven British tabloids had smelled blood and they were going in for the kill. The provocative headlines seemingly designed to whip the English into a furious rage that would see an army of patriots march on the Football Association's headquarters to demand a new manager (and perhaps a new team from somewhere).
You knew the state of emergency had reached seismic proportions when the clearly traumatized pundits began calling for the return of the prodigal son -- David Beckham. The man vilified after last summer's World Cup -- despite the fact he carried England to the World Cup quarterfinal with several assists and a crucial free-kick goal in the last-16 stage.
Suddenly, old Golden Balls was billed as the savior again - if anyone could rescue us from the qualification nightmare it would be the man who got us out of jail in the qualifiers for World Cup 2002. And so, the public responded with floods of letters, phone calls and text messages calling for the former captain's reinstatement. This was presumably the same public which rejoiced en masse when McClaren's first significant move as new coach was to drop Beckham.
The whole thing horrified me. Not the criticism of McClaren or the call for Beckham, but the general frenzied whirlwind of negativity that followed what, in all honesty, wasn't that bad a result in a tough away game. The sheer vindictive fury with which the press and "experts" rounded on the whole England team was like being at some kind of Nazi rally. Everywhere I went, people would be echoing the anger of aggression they'd read, heard and seen all morning. "We've got to sack McClaren!" everyone raged, as if the diminutive, rather geeky chap had just ordered a cull of first-born sons. The nation was alight.
The rage of fury was attenuated somewhat by England's victory over Andorra, with Steven Gerrard bagging a couple of goals. The headlines seemed almost frustrated after the match: "Stevie saves McClaren," a common theme. Of course, the game was scoreless at halftime and the England manager was carried to the dressing room by raging waves of verbal abuse from the country's traveling fans. What was more depressing perhaps was the TV pictures constantly switching to a group of the nation's most famous sportswriters, who were looking on grim-faced from the press box. With them apparently set up as all-powerful judges, I was just waiting for the thumbs-down sign, Roman-Emperor style.
What the whole case highlighted was one of my countrymen's worst traits -- rampant spite and a desire to see people fail. This, of course, is a trait most keenly observed in the football writers and pundits of the world, who stoke the nation's negative fires at any opportunity. Of course, they have every right to criticize -- preferably in opinion forums rather than in the sports news section -- but the over-the-top hysterical nature of it is rank.
It was like watching the most hyper-emotional day-time soap ever produced, but on a Truman Show scale. In other words, there's no escape from it. The British have many strong attributes -- fortitude, stoicism and wit being three of them -- but the gleeful enthusiasm for character assassination on a national scale is more than a little disturbing.
The incandescent rage at the result in Israel might be more understandable if England was the preeminent footballing force on the planet. But it's not. Yes, the country's ranked sixth in the world, but since winning the World Cup on home soil in 1966, the nearest we've come is fourth in Italia '90. Failure - in terms of winning trophies - is commonplace.
Of course, people's expectations are raised because of the English Premier League. In many people's eyes, the EPL is the number one league in the world for entertainment and quality. However, by and large, the league's success have very little to do with the English players in it and a lot more to do with the sublimely-gifted foreigners who flood to these shores for the vast pay packets on offer.
We just need perspective. Yes, McClaren lacks the pedigree or know-how to deliver success on the national level. Yes, England's recent performances have been woeful. But, we haven't had a manager who'd won the English league before taking the national job since Sir Alf Ramsey in the 1960s, (when he bizarrely enough won the World Cup for the country). Great managers don't tend to be English and great foreign coaches for obvious reasons don't find it particularly attractive. There hasn't been an abundance of great England teams. As hard to take as it may be, England has generally been mediocre in the international arena.
As a patriot, I hope that England recovers to qualify for next year's European championships and I also believe that McClaren needs to relieved of his duties because he isn't the man to spark the recovery. But I just don't think we need a full-blown state of national emergency every time England puts in an indifferent performance. That angst-ridden, nauseous feeling, coupled with a blood-thirsty rage that the media tends to induce in me at those times is something I'd prefer to save for true emergencies. At least you can switch soaps (or horror movies) off!
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