There is a particularly notable passage in Friedrich Nietzsche’s book The Gay Science (a play on Thomas Carlyle’s The Dismal Science) which encapsulates much of his thinking in an arrestingly allegorical fashion. In it a madman rises in the early hours of the morning, lights a lantern and runs screaming into the local marketplace with great agitation.
“I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” he screams, but the people of the town drown out his cries with raucous laughter. Unperturbed, the madman begins to rant and rave with an increased intensity. “Where has God gone? I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are all his murderers.”
To claim that English football at international level is dead would be to push any possible analogy to breaking point, but there can be little doubt that it is currently riddled with a most aggressive disease. Technically impotent, tactically naïve and regularly humiliated by supposedly pedestrian opposition, the stock of the England national team hasn’t been lower since the Graham Taylor years.
While the lack of a national academy, a cultural emphasis on physicality and an all-pervasive and inherent sense of superiority are key contributors to this latest malaise, I believe that an overwhelming tide of negativity and unrealistic expectation emanating from the “fan base” is also deserving of its share of the blame. In the case of the maiming of the Three Lions, all our hands are dripping with blood.
When it comes to sport we English are a complicated, often conflicted and disturbed bunch. Of course, over the years there has been a certain arrogance about football in this country, something encapsulated by refusals to participate in early World Cups and incessant claims as to the superiority of the Premier League. However, when things take a turn for the acutely humiliating, criticism tends to arrive in rabid waves and we revel in highlighting failure to the point that “It was obvious we were going to fail anyway so why should we get behind the team?” becomes the party line.
I’m willing to admit that I’m as guilty as most when it comes to venting sarcastically-framed vexations at the plight of the national side, but I recognise just how counter-productive this particular attitude is becoming. The most recent manifestation of this almost nihilistic vehemence has come during the current U21 European Championships, England’s feeble performances in the group stage being met by a barrage of media criticism, even the most minor failings being magnified and exposed to melodramatic lampooning.
As therapeutic as passing damning judgements on England sides may be, I have come to see this regular carnival of negativity as our infamous footballing arrogance embodied in a different form. The frustrations, if nothing else, are borne out of the idea that “we” should be at the pinnacle of the international game and that “we” have a divine right to success as failures are wrapped up in endless excuses. It is, in the popular narrative, typically England that is beset by some complication or other, never the opposition that has simply played better football, very rarely the plain admission that England just aren’t very good. Excuses. There are always excuses.
While it would be preposterous to suggest that fan negativity is a strongly deterministic factor in England performances, that it has got to the players in recent times is beyond doubt. As Wayne Rooney’s post-Algeria outburst showed, the continual criticism – criticism which is taking on an increasingly savage tone – is affecting the players’ mentalities. Subjected to expectations which are arguably far beyond the limits of their ability, the current England side is caught in a tortuous purgatory where even their better performances are short of the hopes of the nation.
All faith, from supporters to players and vice-versa, has been undermined and eroded. Many of us would dearly love to see England succeed, but our most bitter resentments as “supporters” are only serving to exacerbate an already depressing situation. What we are witnessing is a systemic crisis, an affliction at all levels of participation around the national side, an affliction that will not be remedied by all-pervasive negativity. The joy has been ripped out of English football; this is the dismal science.
We here has God gone? I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are all his murderers.