My late friend Alan Watkins, who died four years ago after writing a political column for fifty years, was a Welshman and also wrote learnedly on rugby. In 1996 he was discussing Tony Blair, then the Labour leader of the opposition, a year before he became prime minister. Every rugby fan knows the words of Carwyn James, the great Welsh coach who led the British Lions to a unique victory over New Zealand in 1971. Ahead of what was expected to be an unusually violent series, James told his players to “get your retaliation in first.”
All previous Labour leaders had disillusioned their more ardent supporters once they were prime minister by moving rightward, but Blair was unique, Watkins said. Well before reaching Downing Street he had already taken an intransigent position on the right, and by so doing he had got his disillusionment in first.
And this is the World Cup when England got their disillusionment in first. Never since 1966, the one and only time when we won the World Cup, and then with a good deal of luck, have expectations for an England team been so low, apart, of course, from 1974, 1978, and 1994, when we didn’t even qualify. A Private Eye cover caught the mood with a photograph of the England team disembarking from their plane which had just landed in Brazil, and a bubble from the pilot’s cockpit saying, “Shall I keep the engines running?”
It has been very notable how little enthusiasm there has been in England this June, with far fewer red and white crosses of St. George flying atop cars and cabs than four or eight years ago. On what must be an impressionistic view, I would say that this World Cup has aroused much less public excitement than there was two years ago during the London Olympics or, just before that, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which really was a great happy national party.
As it turns out, the low expectations were just as well. After losing their first match to Italy, England had to beat Uruguay, who had, after all, already been beaten by plucky little Costa Rica. And so the match had the ghastly television commentators (a subject for another day) in a state of boosterish expectancy. Wayne Rooney, if not the best player in the world (did anyone ever think that?), is one of the most highly paid, although as is well-known he has never scored a goal in the World Cup, or never had before Thursday.
The jingo-booster commentators didn’t let us down: “Wayne Rooney’s first World Cup goal may just be getting closer,” and then, “Rooney was denied by the woodwork,” meaning his shot wasn’t accurate enough. But in the end, mirabile dictu (as they say at Old Trafford), he did score. The trouble was that Luis Suarez scored twice for Uruguay. The second involved a neat combination play between two Liverpool players, a backwards glance with the head towards a striker who hammered the ball past the goalkeeper. The only trouble was that the header was by Steven Gerrard in an England shirt, and he set up the goal for Suarez.
We will now go into self-pity mode, or excuse-mongering, or making the best of it. The coaches’ and pundits’ favorite phrase after heavy defeat is, “We can take some positives from that,” although to be fair to Roy Hodgson, the manager, he made no excuses at all. He’s a decent and intelligent man. Indeed I have sometimes wondered whether the time was truly ripe for an England coach who goes to the opera, reads Philip Roth and Milan Kundera, and speaks six languages including Japanese and Norwegian.
To be honest, there were almost no positives to be taken, and not much consolation in the fact that Spain, the champions, were already out. In England’s case, though not Spain’s, it is in fact mathematically possible that they could still qualify for the next around, although I lack a blackboard large enough to explain that.
Before the teams arrived in Brazil, England could be backed with London bookmakers at 28-1, an insulting price for a former winner, but a realistic one as it transpired. Actually, they can still be backed, on that remote-math hypothesis, at 125-1. Feel free to have a sporting bet.
Update, 2:27 EST: The math is now simplified and England are out of the World Cup, thanks to Costa Rica's brilliant and astonishing defeat of Italy. Costa Rica now go through, Italy and Uruguay fight it out for the other Group D spot on Tuesday, and England can go home on Wednesday, their shortest ever World Cup campaign, the first time they have failed to progress beyond the group stage since Sweden in 1958, and the first time they have been out after only two matches.