Immediately after witnessing Capello’s squad capitulate to Germany in Bloemfontein, I was surprised at how unperturbed I was. Yes, I was upset and embarrassed, but my placid reaction to the defeat was in stark contrast to the tearful 10-year-old of 14 years earlier. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. I just didn’t care as much. True, adults deal with adversity better than children and yes, the defeat was perhaps made rather less crushing by the decisiveness of it, unlike the narrow defeats and penalty heartbreak of previous years. However deep down I knew there was more to it than just that.
Even now, typing this feels odd and mildly traitorous. But somewhere along the way, my love for the national team has cooled and I’m not the only one. The backlash following the exit from South Africa was as inevitable as it was familiar. In the past, the media and the fans have tended to single out a particular player as a scapegoat for England’s failure. In ’96 there was Southgate, ’98 Beckham, ’00 Phil Neville, and in ’02 Seaman. The trend was then bucked somewhat as Swiss referee Urs Meier was blamed for England’s defeat to Portugal in Euro 2004 and in 2006 it was Portugal’s Ronaldo who was vilified for his role in ‘winkgate’. The blame for England’s disastrous Euro 2008 qualifying campaign fell on boss Steve McClaren and, to a lesser extent, Scott Carson. This time, however, it was aimed at the whole squad. Even the officials’ failure to award Lampard’s ‘goal’ provoked little outcry in comparison to the chorus of disapproval aimed at Capello’s men, as reverence turned to resentment.
The performances were poor, certainly. The failure to beat the USA could have been put down to teething troubles, but the abysmal showing against Algeria and the far from convincing win over Slovenia had banished any possibility of Gerrard and Co being given the benefit of the doubt long before their clinical dissection at the hands of Die DFB-Elf. However, I feel my own resentment lies far deeper than that.
A Different League makes a point of not dealing in the lurid tabloid gossip that surrounds the Premier League and rightly so, but the various scandals involving some of the squad in the build up to the World Cup were impossible to ignore. There is undoubtedly a great deal of discontent over the increasing greed and excess in the Premier League. The wages that England’s top-flight stars receive rankle fans who are being priced out of the game. Ashley Cole’s falling out with previous club Arsenal over his wage demands attracted huge criticism and his attempt to justify his actions in his 2006 autobiography My Defence served only to further damage his reputation. The gap between player and supporter has never been wider and each new indiscretion by a Premiership footballer, particularly an international, is greeted with increasingly vocal derision from disillusioned fans. Whether the likes of Cole and Terry like it or not, the worldwide fame from which they benefit has also made them role models to thousands and the public eye they enjoy in the good times they must likewise endure in the bad. When they celebrate the trappings of fame and wealth, consistently bad performances will not be tolerated.
They certainly weren’t in South Africa, particularly after the Algeria game when furious England fans made their feelings clear. Wayne Rooney’s rant at the camera as the boos rang out after the final whistle showed a complete lack of respect to the fans who had spent vast amounts of money to witness the dross that was served up.
Much of the focus before Wednesday’s friendly with Hungary was how Capello’s flops would be greeted by the Wembley crowd, with many predicting a hostile reception. In the event, the 72,000 fans were in reasonably forgiving mood, although Terry, Cole, Lampard and to a lesser extent Rooney received some barracking from supporters. The subsequent 2-1 win was hardly the emphatic victory that Capello would have hoped for, but even the most convincing of English victories would only have papered over the cracks.
The booed quartet of Terry, Cole, Lampard and Rooney will, along with Gerrard and Ferdinand, make up the spine of the England team that will contest qualification for Euro 2012, starting with Bulgaria on September 3. A successful campaign may go some way to restoring a nation’s pride. Winning back a nation’s respect will be just as crucial a battle.