There’s just something about cheering on whoever the English is playing against at a major tournament that adds to the enjoyment of it all. Everyone loves an underdog, but everyone loves to hate the villain even more. For many countries, but especially Ireland (and to a similar extent Scotland and Wales), that villain is England.
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It’s pretty much a national pastime at this stage, especially when Ireland aren’t at the World Cup themselves. So what is it about the Old Enemy that we get so much joy out of their oft-repeated demise?
Well, for one, they are known as the Old Enemy for a reason. Centuries of colonialism and imperialism have not won them too many fans, not least in this country. The legacy of bastardry doesn’t really dissipate much over time.
In fact, it still influences how the English view their football team today. As a former conqueror of the world, many of their fans feel they should be on top of the pile more often than not.
This leads to the usual hype and hysteria that we see from England supporters every other year. Ireland are no strangers to over-estimating ourselves before performing meekly on a big stage (see: our blasted optimism heading into Euro 2012, or the recent drubbing at the hands of Denmark), but there’s something unbearably grating about the English attitude when it comes to international football.
Yet there are many football fans in England who don’t actually support the national team. If you are a fan of one of the major clubs, your passion is likely sated by the drama and glory experienced on a yearly basis in the Premier League and Champions League. But there’s also the fact that so many of them just don’t identify with this team and never have, partly down to the record of violence and hooliganism displayed by certain sections of their travelling contingent.
That, and the never-ending cycle of failure.
For our latest podcast we decided to chronicle this unwanted record of their’s: England have only won two knockout games of football, against Denmark and Ecuador, in the last twenty years.
Why twenty years? Euro 96 was the last time that the English national team warranted any sense of true optimism. Not only was the side pretty decent, they were hosting the tournament during an era of unprecedented positivity for the island as a whole. It was the era of Britpop and New Labour, replacing post-punk and Margaret Thatcher as the signposts for a new generation. And best of all, a football song that didn’t make you want to burst your own eardrums.
One line at the start of that famous song that has always resonated with me: “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before.” Which is exactly how I’ve felt watching England fail to clear every hurdle put in their way over the past two decades. It’s the same thing happening over and over again.
Excluding 1966, England’s greatest moments have come in the near-misses of Italia 90 and Euro 96, where they reached the semi-finals on both occasions. The buoyancy gained from the latter tournament didn’t last much longer after France 98, however.
There was no shame in losing to a side like Argentina, and they were in fact quite impressive in taking them to penalties after drawing 2-2 while playing most of the match with 10 men. But it was the manner of David Beckham’s sending that sent fans and press alike into a frenzy.
Beckham became an easy target following their exit from the World Cup, assuming the role of national hate figure. One tabloid ran the subtle headline: “BECKHAM’S RUINED IT FOR US.” West Ham fans hung an effigy of the Man United star before the second game of the season. Curiously, the man himself calls it one of his top career moments, telling GQ this year that it “made me mature very quickly”.
In this writer’s opinion that tournament and the overblown reaction to it by the English broke something inside the psyche of the team. The football culture changed again, for the worse. Ever since then you can tell the players are playing under enormous pressure, fearing the worst instead of hoping for the best. After all, they know full well that one mistake could see them become the next pariah.
Frank Lampard said as much in a recent interview:
France 98 set in motion the series of events that has lead to England players repeatedly playing within themselves, often making fools of themselves while they’re at it.
Ronaldinho’s shot going over the head of David Seaman in 2002. Going out on penalties to Portugal (twice). Wayne Rooney’s stamp on Ricardo Carvalho. The Golden Generation not qualifying for Euro 2008. That would be enough for most nations to have nightmares for years, but it doesn’t stop there.
Looking back, South Africa 2010 feels like the cherry on top of a mediocre pie. Rob Green’s howler versus a United States team who should have been put to the sword. Drawing 0-0 with Algeria and Rooney saying straight to the camera, “it’s nice when your own fans boo you.” But the pièce de résistance was still to come.
Germany scored an embarrassingly simple goal to kick things off in the round of 16, before Lukas Podolski hit a cracking finish. Matthew Upson got one back, but it was to get worse for the English. Lampard had a shot come down off the bar and go over the line, which should have made it 2-2 but it bounced straight back out. The referee didn’t give it, in a reversal of fortunes from the 1966 meeting between the two countries.
Thomas Muller would go on to score two goals on the counter-attack, inflicting England’s biggest defeat at a major tournament. A particularly pleasing sight was that of Mesut Ozil absolutely roasting Gareth Barry for pace on the fourth and final goal. At that moment I understood the true meaning of Schadenfreude.
Andrea Pirlo panenka’d England out of Euro 2012, while they scarpered out of Brazil 2014 with a solitary point to their name. But nothing could ever hold a candle to 2010, surely.
Then came Iceland. A small island nation with a population of 300,000 who had never qualified for anything before Euro 2016. And they beat the English, 2-1.
The delight in Iceland’s victory just about greater than the glee in seeing England lose to a so-called minnow of international football. As everyone’s second favourite team in France, was there anyone could be happier for the land of ice and fire to defeat more than the English? And to cap it all off, there was Steve McClaren.
It’s cruel to point and laugh, but we can’t help it. Here’s to another summer of watching Ingerland making a show of themselves.
Intro theme by The Shaker Hymn.