Few will turn their eyes to Wembley Stadium in search of beauty and joy when England play Slovakia in a qualifier for the World Cup finals, which take place next year. Rather, the match will call on a sense of duty. It will be an exercise in anxiety. That’s true for the players as well as the spectators.
England have created a new form of the game: the football of fear. International football is no longer an opportunity for eternal glory. It’s no longer seen as the summit of the game. Players don’t see international football as an essential step towards fame and fortune; if you play in the Premier League, you’ve already got both. All an England player has to play for is the opportunity to escape the blame for England’s latest defeat.
This doesn’t lead to gorgeous free-flowing football. High-risk, high-reward strategies are avoided. Swerve the blame – then when England fail to win the World Cup, they can sack the manager. After all, that’s what managers are for.
The players must fight two expectations: the first is the old-fashioned one that England have a right to win everything, and that when they fail, it has to be someone’s fault. The second is that England are hopeless and will always find a way to fail; only the manner of the failure is unpredictable.
The idea that England have a right to beat Slovakia is long out of date. They are ranked 22 in the world to England’s 13, not an interstellar gap. All the same, failure to dominate and win in a reasonably confident manner will attract prolonged and serious criticism. Not that victory will bring lavish praise, or national rejoicing.
It’s what England are meant to do. Come on, lads – keep out of trouble, play safe, perform with the sort of colourless competence we call “professionalism” and the ultimate prize is yours: they’ll blame somebody else.
Oddly enough, this doesn’t lead inevitably to bad sport. The fascinating thing about the football of fear lies in the search for the players who reject it. Fearlessness is a rare thing to find in an England shirt – so when you stumble across it, it’s all the more splendid.
Paul Gascoigne had it at the World Cup in 1990. I remember the audacity of his play, an expression of his conviction that England really could win the damn thing. Had he not been booked in the semi-final and suffered an emotional breakdown while still on the pitch, England might even have done so.
David Beckham almost had it on occasions: when he scored that famous 93rd-minute free kick that took England to the finals of 2002, and again with the penalty he scored for England to win against Argentina… but then came that loss of nerve, one that ran through the entire England team, in the quarter-final against Brazil.
Wayne Rooney – now retired from international duty – had it at the Euros in 2004, when he was 18, and he was never quite as good – perhaps I mean as fearless – again. But for a few days he was the greatest footballer in Europe, four goals in two matches and playing with untrammelled joy.
Asserting yourself in international football is a hard thing for most England-qualified players. A generation back, the England team brought together the best players in the country, the finest the First Division could offer. They were all players of self-certainty, players with a bit of swagger about them. These days few England players are cock of the walk at their own clubs. They’re not used to taking control of a big occasion; that’s not their job. If you can recognise – or have heard of – every player in the England squad, you are a pretty serious football buff.
The interest in this somewhat downbeat occasion lies in the hope of discovery – of finding a player who steps beyond fear to seize control of time and space. Because here’s a fact: not even the football of fear can exist without hope.
By Simon Barnes
World Cup Qualifier: England v Slovakia is on Monday 7.15pm (k/o 7.45pm) ITV, 7pm 5 Live