The Future of English Football Is Young, Exciting, and Exactly the Same as the Past

Slate's soccer blog.
June 15 2014 10:38 AM

The View from England: The Three Lions Are Young, Exciting, and Exactly the Same

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Should England fans get used to the idea of continuing to make this face?

Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images

We’ve seen the future of English football, and true to national form, it looks a lot like the past. I’ve been visiting London since the beginning of June, and on Saturday night hiked out to Hackney Wick for a night of football-watching that was, in keeping with the team, an awful lot of fun and just a bit too young. Hackney Wick is a cool neighborhood, vibrant, artistic, and inconveniently located enough to still be relatively inexpensive. It’s the sort of place where, in 2020, everyone who moved there in 2015 will be moaning about how great it was back in 2010. I arrived with a friend, and after briefly getting lost we wandered into a setting that felt like a sports bar at Burning Man. There were sandboxes, ping-pong tables, several DJs, live hip-hop performances, and an enormous mechanical dragon that was shooting fire (seriously). And of course there was an absolutely enormous screen in a room that felt like an airplane hangar save for the haphazardly staffed (and, as the night wore on, haphazardly stocked) bar tucked discreetly into a corner. 

We drifted in just in time to catch the second half of the Uruguay-Costa Rica match, which few people seemed to be watching. I was introduced to a handful of friendly folks and chatted up a Scotsman named Colin. A staunch proponent of Scottish independence, up for referendum this September, he told me he was constitutionally incapable of supporting England. He added that in a more perfect world he’d be openly cheering Italy, “but I don’t want my head kicked in.” I laughed at this and wrote it down, which seemed to make him slightly nervous, although I couldn’t tell if he was worried about being heard or just worried about jinxing Italy’s chances.

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By the start of the England-Italy match, the enormous room was filled to capacity. The teams charged on the field and the cheers were deafening. “God Save The Queen” began, and the sound of the anthem sung in full-throated unison by a young, stylish, and remarkably diverse cross-section of the queen’s subjects moved me in spite of myself. If, as the joke goes, the highlight of England’s World Cup runs is the moment immediately before the games begin, you could do worse than this one. 

\In case you weren’t aware, England tends not to do all that well in World Cup play, and if you weren’t aware of that you’ve likely never met an English football fan. Saying football is a big deal in England is like saying football is a big deal in Texas, and one of the great conundrums of English culture is how a country that’s home to the best pro league in the world manages to field such a perpetually disappointing national team. England, aka the Three Lions, has won the World Cup exactly once, in 1966, and even that came with controversy. This lack of international success has bred a self-aggrandizing martyr complex in the team’s supporters, who believe that England ought to enjoy a monopoly on success and instead enjoys an even more exceptional monopoly on suffering. This is an obnoxious trait that as a Boston Red Sox fan I recognize instantly, and find immensely charming.

This year, though, it might be different, if only because it’s the first time in recent history that no one’s expecting all that much. As Greg Howard at Deadspin writes, the Three Lions are finally playing in a World Cup unencumbered by the burden that accompanied its “golden generation,” the Beckham-ite era of charismatic prodigies that could never win when the lights were brightest. The current team is young, fast, dynamic, and unpredictable in the best sense. The new era of English football is here, and it’s nothing like the last, or so we’re told.

And for a little while last night that story seemed to hold. England came out in thrilling, attacking fashion. Raheem Sterling, the 19-year-old who is widely thought to be the Thee Lions’ next superstar, was as electrifying as advertised, rocketing a shot just past the goalie (and sadly, just past the goal) in the opening minutes of play. Nevertheless, our crowd went crazy, and the atmosphere was intoxicating: England was dominating, at least in a room that wasn’t inclined to believe anything else.

Then Italy scored, with Claudio Marchisio taking advantage of a defensive lapse that betrayed England’s youth. Two minutes later Daniel Sturridge evened the score for England. Universe righted! The teams took a 1-1 tie into the half, and all the possibility of the pregame remained in the air.

The second half started, Italy’s incomparable Mario Balotelli scored on a header five minutes in, and England’s wheels either came off or went back on, depending on your sense of fatalism. The team’s pacing became ragged and awkward, and the confidence that had drained from our room with Balotelli’s goal seemed to leave the pitch as well. There were typical near-misses and squandered opportunities, including several from Wayne Rooney, England’s aging prodigy who’s one of the greatest players of his generation but seems increasingly destined to have a Charles Barkley-sized “yes, but” affixed to his legacy.

The game ended and the crowd shambled into the East London night. It was after 1 a.m., and the mood seemed split between those heading home to sleep it off and those off to the next party, chasing that post-game buzz in chemical if not spiritual form. As we were leaving I saw a young man in an Italian national team jersey standing by himself, quiet and respectful but clearly immensely pleased. Colin approached, whispered something in his ear, and gave him a warm hug. It was a nice moment, and I asked him if I could write about it. This time he grinned, broadly and generously. “Of course!”

Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic. He is assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.

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