Old England is just so yesterday
When Harry Maguire took a ridiculous dive in Colombia’s box on Tuesday night, the match commentator on SuperSport — I think it was Martin Tyler — couldn’t bring himself to say anything about it, except to note that Colombia’s defenders were quite cross about the incident.
Tyler is a cut above the other wafflers Britsplaining the Cup to us, so let’s cut him some slack. As for Maguire, his stunt disproved the old myth that English footballers are an honest bunch. But it was instructive that it was an England central defender — traditionally a blunt instrument, open to any sin except deceit — who had been chopped down by an invisible guillotine.
This England team do seem a different proposition to their predecessors. They are a bit savvier, a bit more polished, a bit more worldly. The squad has been groomed in the lavish youth systems of the world’s richest league, and then hardened by weekly combat with half the world’s best players. They have no delusions about representing a nobly attack-oriented English style or an English ethic of fair play. Because the English style doesn’t exist: it has been subsumed into the globalised hive mind of the big leagues.
The irony is that at the very moment that Britain’s football union with Europe is finally starting to reap some rewards at the World Cup, the deeper union behind it is being torn apart. And, despite the racket of harmless triumphalism that will mount with every step taken by Gareth Southgate’s men, they do not represent the backward-looking world view of the Leavers.
They are young and rich and living out the globe-trotting, tattoo-scrawled dreams of the Instagram generation. Nearly half of them are black. They do not buy the idea that Englishness is some kind of superpower. The Cool Britannia generation of the 1990s were able to half indulge that fantasy, having imbibed a mood of glib invincibility from Oasis, Tony Blair, Posh ’n Becks, Damien Hirst and Kate Moss. Fame was power and power was worth and Britannia rocked the waves.
These lads know better. Over the parapets of their cosseted lives, they can see that the country down below is a shambles. And it can’t have escaped them that most of their team-mates are not remarkable footballers — or at least, not yet. If you play in the Premiership, you are confronted every match day with the dizzying scale of the pond of talent we call Earth.
Weirdly enough, this young and raw side, boasting only one demonstrably world-class player in the shape of Harry Kane, now sees a plausible path to Engand’s first World Cup final in half a century. Sweden are fierce and organised but limited. Croatia’s kingpin Luka Modric looked like the tiredest man on Earth at the end of the Argentina clash, and Russia haven’t become world-beaters overnight. Plus, if Sweden submit, then Kane and company will suddenly find themselves in low-pressure territory: because the English public would be proud, if totally miserable, to welcome home a side that bowed out in the semis.
When pressure lifts, a team can start to express itself more adventurously. Raheem Sterling could cut loose; England might even find they can score goals from open play.
Who knows whether Southgate threw the dead rubber against Belgium to dodge Brazil and hop over to the soft side of the draw. If he did, well, kudos to him — yet more evidence of the strategic savvy lurking in the cage of the Three Lions.
And what if they do somehow win the whole thing, by hook or by crook? Then, well, God help us all.