Thursday, May 3, 2012

God save our hopeless team

My country (England) takes its national team far too seriously, and I am glad. It makes life interesting. Logically we should just be happy to reach the last eight of a major tournament. But since when has the heart and the head been the same?

The latest storm in a teacup is over Harry Redknapp missing out on the England job, a post he seemed to have sewn up when Fabio Capello walked out of Wembley for good in February.

England for decades has been a spectacular un-achiever at international level, which makes any furor over a new boss in one sense look absurd. As any sober analyst knows, ingrained deficiencies in the English game are what fatally handicap its national teams more than any one man in charge of the first eleven. Or, what worked in 1882 does not work anymore in 2012.

So, the hiring of a multilingual UEFA technical assessor who has coached three countries, one of them at USA '94, reached two UEFA Cup Finals and guided clubs in Serie A, the Premier League and in six other nations should be a cause for celebration.

For all Tottenham's crowd-pleasing these past two seasons, would such a cavalier approach garner a better score against Spain than Capello's austere 1-0 victory at Wembley did last November? Certainly more entertaining under Harry, but much riskier too.

Some writers have indeed welcomed Roy Hodgson, understood the Football Association's motives and will give him a chance to impress.

But others have already made up their mind and reacted with dismay that the people's choice was passed over, citing the rejection of Brian Clough in 1977 and 1982 as proof the F.A. blazers have never understood the man in the street.

Most vulgar of all, the tabloid Sun splashed a front-page mocking of Hodgson's rhotacism, a day after the UK parliament denounced its owner Rupert Murdoch as unfit to run a large corporation.

Its chief football writer Shaun Custis was at his pompous worst, refusing to welcome or back the new man in charge. I witnessed the same hack ruin an England press conference in Poland by pressing Capello over John Terry's extra-curricular deeds, causing the manager to walk out after only two questions.

At the heart is a cultural struggle for the nation's soul in a changing age. Redknapp is the last hurrah of Old England, as in some ways is The Sun - a nation that gets by on confidence, grit and passion alone and remains defiantly dismissive of learning and suspicious of foreign wisdom.

England is globalising as fast as the Premier League is being dominated by overseas players and coaches. There are even more Scots than English coaches in it this season.

While 65 year-old Redknapp is the reassuring past, the poor boy made good on his wits alone. Born in Poplar, heartland of the now mythical working-class Londoner known as the Cockney, his dad was a docker. But go there now and the Cockneys have vanished along with the cranes and the ships.

From his accent, Hodgson is a working-class Londoner too but might as well have come from France. While Roy has waxed lyrical on the works of Nabokov, Updike and Zweig in the literary pages of The Observer, 'Arry penned a footy column for the soft-porn Daily Sport.

Hodgson burst into tears once on the bench at Inter - not a good sign when the wolves of Fleet Street are salivating at the latest sacrificial lamb. They think Hodgson is a wimp they can tear to pieces when England lose a match, and will relish saying 'I told you so'. England's press gang is vicious and incestuous. They hunt in packs, which explains why Custis was patted on the back for disrupting that press conference and even some of the best scribes like the Telegraph's Henry Winter stood up yesterday to defend the indefensible.

The London journos get together and decide the next day's headlines before asking the questions. Reporters from rival newspapers swap quotes and arrange together what the focus in the papers will be on different days of the week.

The USMNT press conferences I have attended have been bliss in comparison - there is no organised witch-hunt afoot and reporters appear to be reporting and asking illuminating questions instead of sticking doggedly to their own agendas. Having played in England, Germany and Italy, Jurgen Klinsmann must know how lucky he is today.

I have been to Redknapp press conferences and the atmosphere is like a friendly luncheon amongst old pals. Hodgson on the other hand feels threatened by hacks and can get prickly and defensive. Dealing with the press is a crucial part of the job which some England managers (Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor) have got badly wrong. And being a native speaker, Hodgson cannot pretend he does not understand the question (Capello) or its nuance (Sven-Goran Eriksson).

I hope for the best but also fear the worst. Oh for a Cloughie to frighten the life out of journalists again!

Apart from having been surpassed in tactics and technique, England also uniquely struggles with the psychological millstone of having invented soccer. Just look at Premier League Chairman Sir Dave Richards' lunatic outburst in Doha in March, where, possibly inebriated, he cried that 'gangs' called FIFA and UEFA had 'stolen' the game from England, before he tripped and fell into the hotel pool.

In addition, association football was codified and organised at a time Britannia ruled the waves, administering a global empire enforced with discipline and might. This blurring of the lines between the military and civilian at football's inception bequeathed a Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade mentality in English football, and has left the national team as patriotic flag-bearer in this post-imperial era, lumping irrational expectation upon it every two years.

Singing 'Two World Wars & One World Cup' made perfect sense to me as a face-painted teenager at the old Wembley, itself a relic of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924.

But times have changed, unlike British tabloids and their lust for adrenalin-fueled football. Successful creatures adapt to survive and the Three Lions need evolution. Hodgson might be the man. But even if he just dashes another set of supporters' hopes over the next four years, the vicious triangle of England's manager, press and fans will still be a carnival worth watching.

After all, it's only a game.

-Sean O'Conor, London


Harris said...

Great stuff, Sean!

John said...

I look forward to Hodgson describing a victory over San Marino as a "famous win".

If you're wondering what I'm talking about...

The FA did realize the "Hodgson for England" chants from the Kop were sarcasm, right?

dikranovich said...

the english press reminds me of the american soccer blogger with his own agenda. the two beast are very similar.

Phil McCracken said...

Excellent post, Sean. Hodgson is the best choice for the job, but the hacks will continue to take shots at him in a ridiculous manner for the way he speaks and hairstyle. He's a proven international manager and before anyone claims that he only made mediorce sides better, I think that we can all agree that England is no longer one of the top teams in the world and could use someone who could help them punch above their weight. It's just unfortunate that he won't have Rooney for the first two matches as that will make it more difficult to make it out of their group.

As far as what Liverpool supporters think, their team's collective under performance in the league for Dalglish further highlights that the problems there weren't all Hodgson's fault. I'm not trying to wind anyone up here, but that's a fact.

Greg Seltzer said...

Hilarious. It's a wonder you have the time to write so much mental-slapstick comedy, what with having to wade through all the loose ethics, invented stories and non-stop creepy tabloid personal life gossip about players here at NSC, a blog featuring three American professional journalists offering personal opinions in their free time.

Greg Seltzer said...

Obviously, my comments were directed at dikranovich, not Phil.

John said...

Oh yes, Liverpool have underperformed in the league this year, and hell, we've even made some poor buys. But look at our performances in the cups. No embarrassing loss to a "formidable Northampton" this year. Not to mention we've actually had a few good transfers (Bellamy, Suarez, and Enrique), only one of which would have been outside of Woy's budget.

We may be still suffering from H&G's blunders, but Woy did not help our cause in any way shape or form, and I cannot say the same about Kenny. Kenny at least tries to play a form of attractive football, and doesn't demean his players at every available opportunity.

Bernardinho said...

Bravo, Greg! Let clowns be clowns.

. said...

The delusional nature of Liverpool fans is a reason that I really hope Dempsey doesn't land there. Congrats to them on winning the League Cup and on making the FA Cup final, but they are a rather mediocre side that is currently even on points with a Fulham side that is the definition of inconsistent this year. They are not close to being a top 4 side and it makes no sense for Dempsey to move there at this point if he wants CL football. I think its hilarious that LFC fans are so negative towards Hodgson when "King Kenny" has now been in charge 3x as long and things have only continued to deteriorate. Hodgson may not have gotten things right(Konchesky was a major blunder), but was never given any time to really put his stamp on that side - something you can't say about Daglish.

John said...

wah wah iiverpool fans are delusional wah wah hodgson was your savior why did you hate him wah wah

it's like I'm reading a comment section of the Guardian

Jay said...

You should be in Parliament Funkadelic with all that wah wah.

dikranovich said...

You know, when a team wins the treble it is big news. It's yet another thing barca messed up last year with there haul. Liverpool will be playing in Europe next season and if they beat a champions league finalist this weekend, a Russian owned one At that, well thAts two thirds of a treble. Not a bad grab for the pool. And once modric leaves tottenham that will be no destination for deuce No. Liverpool is the place for Clint Dempsey to go and if that is not obvious. Then nothing ever will be

Jay said...

And that's how you kill a thread.

dikranovich said...

jay, youre the prince of the one liners lately. you do have to like the way ben olsen throws andy najar into the right back spot and the young man delivers.