Though they followed their wonderful win over Germany with a peculiar loss to the Netherlands, England showed signs that they might just be ready to fail to win Euro 2016.
Before the international break broke, most watchers of the England team would likely have predicted, with some confidence, that Roy Hodgson’s merry men would emerge from the week with a victory and a defeat. And so, congratulations! Admittedly, the win came against world champions Germany while the loss came against noted basket cases the Netherlands, but no self-respecting prognosticator likes to get too bogged down in the details.
That odd pair of results came attached to an odd pair of performances. Against Germany — and with all the usual caveats about this being a friendly, about both sides missing key players, about substitutions, about domestic seasons — England were coherent, ebullient and pleasing on the eye. Even at two goals down, they hadn’t been bad; that they then came back to stick three on their hosts, fine goals all, felt genuinely special. So special, in fact, that if you’d gone outside shortly afterwards and placed an ear to the ground, you would have heard a distant rumbling. Hypes. Thousands of them.
Luckily for everybody, England — with all the usual etc. and so on — were weird and lost to the Netherlands weirdly, and the rumblings died away a touch. Expert hype defusal from Hodgson, perhaps; a bucket of sand in human form. But with just the small matter of the end of all of Europe’s title races and the Champions League separating these results from the buildup to the tournament proper, now is a good time to ask: are England equipped to do what they are supposed to do?
England’s national football team is not supposed to win tournaments; this much is clear. They have only done so once, and that was basically an accident by which the nation has since been confused and embarrassed in equal measure. This confused embarrassment has led the nation to institutionalise those responsible, the golden boys of ’66, as semi-divinities, in the hope of ensuring that no subsequent generation can live up to the achievement. It’s just as well, too: can you imagine England actually winning something? The country wouldn’t know what to do with itself. One day of partying, one day of hangover, and then an awkward scuttle back to the transfer rumours.
No, the point of the England team is to not win. The point of the England team is to not win — or “lose,” if you prefer — in a fulfilling and appropriate fashion. Not just any failure will do, of course; this isn’t anything so straightforward as simple masochism. The perfect England tournament runs something like Italia ’90 or Euro ’96: a journey of respectable length that contains a couple of decent performances and generates some genuine momentum, excitement and hope … before coming to a disappointing but ultimately noble end. The kind of end that can’t be totally blamed on bad luck — that would just be frustrating — but has a strong air of ambient misfortune. If only this tiny thing had been different. Or maybe that tiny thing. If only …
A penalty shootout is, obviously, ideal for this, since a shootout can easily be dismissed as less a test of footballing skill, more a novelty tie-breaker. But however the exit comes, what’s important is that England depart the tournament without having won it, but able to reassure themselves that they did their best, and that this just goes to show that the world, particularly those parts of it involving foreigners, is in some fundamental way tilted slightly against this plucky nation.
This current group of England players seem well-placed to achieve something along these lines. A certain amount of quality is required, and England, in muddling and muted fashion, have been pretty decent since they bombed out of the 2014 World Cup. Qualification was a breeze, and friendly results and performances have been broadly encouraging. Even the loss to the Netherlands — yes, friendly, etc. and so on — contained some excellent moments and a genuinely well-worked goal.
There’s charm, too. A certain level of likability is required, and this team appears to be capable of achieving just that. Perhaps it’s because they’re untainted by the memories of England disappointments past, or perhaps because watching young footballers blossom into their talents is among the more heartwarming sights that the game can offer. Either way, it’s easy to see how a nation might get behind this group doing well. It helps that the manager is almost entirely inoffensive as well, as long as you’re not a Liverpool fan.
Most importantly, of course, there’s the flaw. There’s the strong possibility that England, whatever the combination at the back, cannot actually defend; that any two from four of Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Phil Jagielka and John Stones is not going to be good enough. This would be of real concern if England were trying to win the thing, but they’re not. All they have to do is ride their good points as far as their bad points will let them.
Nothing is certain. Hodgson could yet make a complete mess of his squad or team selection, and send England out to face Russia with a resolutely un-charming midfield three of Phil Jones, Jack Wilshere and Wayne Rooney. That dodgy defence might find itself exposed a little earlier than necessary. Or — heaven forfend — England might actually find a way past all their opponents, accidentally emerge on the right side of their penalty shootouts, and end up winning the thing. Nobody’s prepared for what happens then. The Queen might have to resign.
But being optimistic, it looks like England might be in a good place to do what they need to do. To go to France in an optimistic but not overconfident mood; to make their way deep but not too deep into the tournament; and to come back across the channel with weary half-smiles to a nation gorging on plaintive montages and safely imaginary alternative futures. In Harry Kane and Dele Alli’s interplay, in Eric Dier’s tidiness, in Adam Lallana and Danny Welbeck’s eager industry, and in Jamie Vardy’s scurrying, Roy Hodgson might just have found the team that can deliver the successful failure for which his country yearns.