Published: June 2006
Soccer, According to England
Nick Hornby Writes about English Soccer
By Nick Hornby

It was all so straightforward back in the 1960s, when I started to watch football. England had just won the 1966 World Cup, and, therefore, unarguably, was the best team in the world: fact, period, end of story. It's true that the winning goal in the final shouldn't have counted; true, too, that the Brazilians and Pelé were systematically beaten up in the '66 tournament, Pelé to the extent that he was carried off on a stretcher after the umpteenth brutal foul. But still, eh? The best! Probably! And we were the second-best team in 1970, clearly, although one has to be a little more creative with the evidence. Yes, England was knocked out in the quarterfinals. But they really shouldn't have been—they were 2–0 up against the Germans with twenty minutes left, and contrived to lose the game 3–2. Brazil won the 1970 World Cup, easily, but they only just beat us in the group stage of the tournament, 1–0. And Jeff Astle missed a sitter toward the end, so that game should have ended 1–1. Brazil thumped everybody else. So, to recap: easily the best team in 1966, and pretty much the best team—let's give the Brazilians some credit, and we'll settle on equal best—in 1970.

And then everything went wrong, pretty much forever. For a start, I became a grown-up, and became much more troubled about what it meant to belong to a country; meanwhile England's football team was hopeless. The equal-best team in the world didn't even qualify for the World Cup finals of 1974 and 1978; the world-class players we'd been blessed with during the 1960s had gone, and anyway, by the 1980s, the whole subject of patriotism and football had become much more complicated. In the mind's eye now, England games during that decade were frequently only just visible through a cloud of tear gas, used by European police to disperse our rioting hooligans. England fans were fast becoming a pretty sinister bunch; and though our club games were frequently plagued by riots, it never felt as though the yobs were setting the tone. If you went to see England play at Wembley, as I still did, once in a while, you could observe people around you making the Nazi salute during the national anthem, and abuse of black players—even the black players playing for the home team—was commonplace.

In those days, Wembley held 92,000 people; neatly, there were (and still are) ninety-two professional football clubs in England. Sometimes it seemed as though the thousand worst scumbag fans from every single league club were gathered at Wembley so that they could make monkey noises and sing anti-IRA songs. It was these people who helped create the commonplace fear and loathing of our two national flags. If you saw someone coming toward you in a T-shirt sporting either the Cross of St. George or the Union Jack, you'd have been best advised to cross the street. The T-shirt was a graphic alternative to a slogan which might say something like, "I'm a racist but I hate you no matter what color you are"—or, as a piece of graffiti captured by the Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss read, F*** YOU IF ARE YOU READING THIS. And if he didn't get you, his pit bull terrier would.

And so, perhaps understandably, some football fans started to feel a little conflicted about the national team. In 1990, when England played Cameroon in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, it wasn't hard to find people in England—middle-class, liberal people, admittedly, but people nonetheless—who wanted Cameroon to win. I watched that game with some of them, and when England went 2–1 down (they eventually won 3–2 in extra time), these people cheered. I understood why, but I couldn't cheer with them, much to my surprise. Those drunk, racist thugs draped in the national colors. . . . they were, it turned out, my people, not (as I'd previously thought), the nice liberal friends I was watching the game with, and England was my national football team. I mean, you can't choose stuff like that, right? The 1990 World Cup turned out to be something of a turning point. The team wasn't embarrassing—not after the opening games, anyway. The fans weren't embarrassing either, apart from the odd skirmish. And in the end England lost, narrowly and bravely, to Germany, on penalties, in the semifinal. (England, incidentally, has been sent home in four of the last six World Cups by either Germany or Argentina, two countries we have had Issues with in the past. Those familiar with the bellicose nature of English tabloid newspapers can imagine that these misfortunes have done little for the cause of world peace.) After a horrendous couple of decades, the national team, and the national game, were once again basking in the warmth of the nation's affections.

The rebirth lasted about five minutes. There was a disastrous managerial appointment, which resulted in yet another failure to qualify. And by 1998, football was a different game. France won the 1998 World Cup, but only a couple of their team played their football in France. Their key men, Zidane and Desailly and Deschamps, played in Italy; the rest played in Spain or England or Germany. Meanwhile, the big stars in English football were Zola of Italy, Bergkamp of Holland, Schmeichel of Denmark. Manchester United, the biggest club in England, had retained a core of young English players, including David Beckham; but Arsenal, my team, had comfortably won the championship with a mixture of English grit and Franco-Dutch flair. Foreign players were, for the most part, better, fitter and cheaper, and they didn't drink much, either. (People like Bergkamp and the brilliant French striker Thierry Henry clearly regard abstinence as the price you have to pay for a career as an athlete, but this attitude was viewed as something akin to cheating by a lot of English footballers.) Before long, the majority of the players in our top division came from outside the British Isles.

The globalization of the transfer market was beginning to rob international football of much of its point. In the old days, you used to look at the best players playing in the club teams and think, What would they be like if they played together? And the answer was that they looked like the national team—that was the idea, anyway, even if in reality the national team, especially the English national team, was often an undercoached and ill-fitting mess. Now, Chelsea, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus, the Milans and Barcelona have replaced the national sides as fantasy football teams. If your national team doesn't contain players from those clubs, it's because those clubs don't want them, which means your national team is no good. Over the last few years, England has even been reduced on occasions to choosing players who are not automatic starting choices for their club sides, an indication of how it's all changed. In the old days, an international-class footballer would have been first on any club's team-sheet. Now, it depends—on the quality of the club, and the quality of the country.

There's no doubt, however, that the foreign imports have dragged the cream of the English players, sometimes reluctantly, toward something approaching competence. We used to be very game, and very limited (and by "we," I may be referring to every single inhabitant of the country); we didn't have to worry about other countries much, because we only played them every couple of years anyway. Now the English players play with or against the best in the world every single week, and they've had to learn very quickly just to stay in the game, and in the profession. Even sane people are beginning to argue that the England team contains some of the best players in the world. Wayne Rooney was a teenager during the 2004 European Championships, but when he limped off injured in the game against Portugal, the team fell apart. He's very strong, incredibly skillful, and as likely to get a red card, possibly for swearing, as he is to score one of the best goals you've ever seen. (In a game against Arsenal last season, Rooney was estimated to have told the referee to f*** off more than twenty times in sixty seconds. As "foul and abusive language" is supposed to be a yellow-card offense, one can only presume that there are some really really bad words, words worse than the f-word and the c-word, that footballers know and we don't.) Frank Lampard and John Terry are Chelsea's most important players, which in the current economic climate means that they are two of Europe's most important players; if they weren't, they would have been sent to the salt mines by now. Ashley Cole is perhaps the world's best left-back, which means that he won't be playing for my team, Arsenal, for much longer. At least half of this England team is seriously good, so when they are beaten in the quarterfinals, as is their custom, there will be pointless anger rather than weary resignation.

Toward the end of their uninspiring 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, England contrived to lose 1–0 to Northern Ireland, most of whose players come from Britain's tinier club teams; during the game, you could almost see the England stars thinking, What the f*** am I doing here, in this dump, playing against these losers? (The fact that the losers were winning seemed of only marginal interest to them.) It was hard to see the ideal of international football lasting the whole ninety minutes, let alone until the World Cup finals and beyond. And then, a few short weeks later, after a meaningless but enthralling last-minute win over Argentina, we all decided that England was going to win the World Cup. This represents progress of sorts: usually, national self-confidence would have been boosted by a narrow win over the hapless Irish, and demolished by a proper team. Now we have a group of cosmopolitan sophisticates (or blinged-up prima donnas, depending on your worldview, age and newspaper of choice) who can't be bothered, unless the occasion warrants it.

Sixteen years ago, England played out a goalless draw against Sweden, a result that helped ensure qualification for the World Cup in 1990. The enduring image of that game is of the England captain, Terry Butcher, swathed in bandages, his white England shirt and shorts covered in blood that had pumped steadily out of a head wound throughout the duration of the game. "Off the pitch I was always an ordinary, mild-mannered bloke," said Butcher in an interview years later. "But put me in a football shirt and it was tin hats and fixed bayonets. Death or glory." That was the old England: the war imagery, the crucial nil-nil draw against modest opposition, the unavoidable replacement of style and talent with blood and graft. Those who loathe David Beckham, the current England captain, and everything he stands for would claim that he will wear a tin hat and bandages only when tin hats and bandages become de rigeur in some ludicrously fashionable European nightclub. That's not fair, because despite his looks and his cash, he too has worked surprisingly hard to compensate for the things that he lacks as a player, notably pace. But there's no doubt that he is brilliantly illustrative of a new kind of English sportsman: professional, media-aware, occasionally petulant and very, very rich. The England fans who went to the friendly match against Argentina (played, as is the way of these things now, in Geneva, for reasons that remain obscure) were still singing their "No Surrender to the IRA" song, and there's more than a suspicion that they'd rather watch Terry Butcher and his fixed bayonets than David Beckham, a man who, after all, has been photographed wearing a sarong. But then, that's England all over at the moment. We'd still prefer to be bombing the Germans; but after sixty years, there's a slowly dawning suspicion that those days aren't coming back any time soon, and in the meantime, we must rely on sarong-wearing, multimillionaire pretty boys to kick the Argies for us. We're not happy about it, but what can we do?

My most thrilling moment of the 1998 World Cup came when Vieira of Arsenal slid the ball through to Petit of Arsenal for France's third goal in their 3–0 win over Brazil in the final: I was on my feet. (The following morning, the Daily Mirror, then edited by an Arsenal season ticket holder, had a front-page headline that said ARSENAL WIN THE WORLD CUP. I had the cover framed.) These were definitely my people: I spend much of the year hating most of the England players anyway, and if any of those Manchester United or Chelsea bastards are in direct competition with any of my beautiful, talented French boys, then there's no agonizing to be done. It turns out that you can choose these things after all. Allez, Les Bleus.

World Cup Record

FIFA Ranking: 9
World Cup Appearances: 11
World Cup Champions: 1
Federation Name: The Football Association
Confederation: UEFA
Founded: 1863
FIFA Affiliation: 1905
Nickname: The Three Lions
Manager: Sven-Gorán Eriksson
Stadium: Wembley
Home Uniform: white/navy blue/white
Away Uniform: red/white/red
Provider: Umbro

1930: Did not enter
1934: Did not enter
1938: Did not enter
1950: First round exit
1954: Quarterfinal exit
1958: First round exit
1962: Quarterfinal exit
1970: Quarterfinal exit
1974: Did not qualify
1978: Did not qualify
1982: Second round exit
1986: Quarterfinal exit
1990: 4th place
1994: Did not qualify
1998: Second round exit
2002: Quarterfinal exit

Matches: 50
Wins: 22
Draws: 15
Losses: 13
GF: 68
GA: 45
GD: +23
Points: 81

England is 5th on the all-time World Cup table
Path to Qualification for World Cup 2006
4-Sep-04 Austria 2 England 2 D
8-Sep-04 Poland 1 England 2 W
9-Oct-04 England 2 Wales 0 W
13-Oct-04 Azerbaijan 0 England 1 W
26-Mar-05 England 4 Northern Ireland 0 W
30-Mar-05 England 2 Azerbaijan 0 W
3-Sep-05 Wales 0 England 1 W
7-Sep-05 Northern Ireland 1 England 0 L
8-Oct-05 England 1 Austria 0 W
12-Oct-05 England 2 Poland 1 W

England qualified by finishing first in Group 6 of the European Zone