Sport is a miserable business in which few protagonists are successful, and then only fleetingly. The Netherlands, 90 minutes from being world champions two years ago, didn’t even qualify for Euros this summer. Chelsea, champions in 2014/15, endured a season that was either pitiable or laughable, depending on your viewpoint.
While some teams who don’t win the Euros will still look back on it as a success, England won’t be among them. And there are several facets to their failure. But which is worst? That’s up to you. Here is the dessert trolley of doom; eat your fill, friends.
1. Missed opportunities (on the pitch)
In four games of bossing possession, England had 82 shots but only managed to get 19 on target (23% accuracy), and scored just four goals (4.8% success rate). For comparison, their opponents – none of whom have ever been lauded as tournament favourites – totalled 26 shots, of which 11 (42%) were on target and four (15%) went in. Never has the bellowed epithet “you bunch of wasters” been more apposite.
With the possible exception of a presumably-bemused Marcus Rashford, none of England’s forwards can be said to have seized their opportunities, metaphorically or literally. No matter how you comparatively rate Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, you’re merely choosing which Titanic deckchair to sit in.
2. Missed opportunities (off the pitch)
A chance to bring a divided nation together. Well, perhaps not the bits of it supporting their countries of origin, which is completely understandable, but in the aftermath of a fiercely divisive referendum it would have been nice for England to have a flag to rally round.
The intersection of football and nationalism is a troubling place but success can unite disparate inhabitants of a country, even if only temporarily – as with France in 1998, and England to a smaller extent two years previously. It might not have healed all wounds, but it could have stopped them smarting as much. Instead, we may now witness violence against any Poles (or Portuguese) celebrating their own success.
3. The tactical confusion…
Remember the diamond? England didn’t. The warm-up games had revealed it as Hodgson’s best fit, but it went out of the window as he tried to accommodate an increasing number of forwards – out wide, in central midfield, hanging out of the windows of passing cars – into a system recognised by a decreasing number of its participants.
There’s a lot to be said for picking different systems in different games, evolving formations and patterns of play to overcome difficulties and maximise potential. This felt a lot more like throwing things at a wall.
4. That may now lead to tactical paralysis
The trouble with trying different things which don’t work is that the hundreds of anti-intellectuals who used to play football and now get a pittance to pontificate upon it seize their moment in the spotlight to wail that England haven’t got a clear identity.
The same rentaquotes and social-media polyfilla merchants will be back on the soapboxes when the next manager is cowed into a Mike Bassett-style “four-four-f**king-two” which is then danced around by England’s first half-awake opponents.
5. The grinding inevitability of it
When Iceland popped in that last-minute winner against Austria, the palpable relief that England wouldn’t face preening bogeyman Cristiano Ronaldo was quickly replaced by a much smaller but stubbornly nagging voice.
The same voice had been there throughout the 100 per cent qualifying record, saying “This is a rubbish group”. Now it said: “Iceland might humiliate you.” And you know what? It was right, as it always is eventually. A bit like...
6. The self-schadenfreude of the misery-mongers
You all know one, or probably several. You hear them in the pub and the stands, you read them below the line and above the line. It’s pointless, say these sub-Schopenhauerian sad-sacks: it will all end in tears. Misery is inevitable, fulfilment impossible.
And no matter how much you argue against it, attempting to see the bright side and seek the glass half-full, when disappointment inevitably comes they will be there, revelling in it, preferring being right to being happy.
7. The succession crisis
There will now follow the world’s ugliest beauty parade of potential replacements, none of whom everybody likes, some of whom nobody likes. The debate will become heated, and many who take part will prejudge the lucky winner.
No matter who is appointed, the idea that someone better should have got it will lurk in the background, unprovably possible, unsilencably uttered, a parallel universe used as a black hole through which all joy is sucked.
So, who's up for Russia 2018?
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