Anyone who’s seen the the movie Independence Day will remember its finest YouTube moment: the rousing, single-tear-of-patriotism inducing speech from Bill Pullman’s impossibly young President on the eve of the climactic battle for Earth’s survival. “We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!” he growls. Against Belgium it was as though, as Jurgen Klinsmann gathered his group of exhausted players after 90 minutes for what would prove to be their final huddle of the tournament, the USA players were listening to the second coming of President Thomas Whitmore.
It’s hard to fathom how else the US players could have produced 30 extra minutes of disciplined defensive work. In the end Belgium were the better footballing side and deserved to go through, but the sheer effort level and integrity of the performance was the real story. So disappointing was Belgium’s effort against Argentina you almost feel that with some luck and more penetrative attacking, Clint Dempsey and company might just have been capable of producing the upset of the century had they been given a shot.
Two things emerged from that performance – pride in playing for their country and a celebrated lack of play-acting. The USA’s progress over the entire World Cup will, if the footage of hysterical crowds in Chicago is anything to go by, inspire a new surge of enthusiasm for the sport as TV ratings begin to challenge those of the major sports. But curiously it also produced something else: a collective sense of embarrassment from England supporters accustomed to the debate over some of their players’ questionable pride in the shirt. ”Why can’t everyone play like this?’ it was tempting to wonder. ‘Why can’t England?’
Firstly it’s worth noting the immediate cause of England’s failure: the two basic errors in the space of a second from Steven Gerrard and Phil Jagielka that allowed Luis Suarez to score a mind-blowingly simple goal. It was a momentary lack of concentration and wits from the two of them that cost England in the end; if Gerrard had won that header firmly and Jagielka hadn’t switched off, who knows how far England might have gone. But the troubling thing is that it is almost impossible to immediately recall an occasion where an effort level from England has been lauded as much as the USA’s against Belgium.
The ‘why can’t England do that’ question may be a little reactionary but it’s still question worth asking, a little like why Ashley Cole refusing to accept a place on the World Cup reserve list can be described as ‘gracious’. Cole’s decision did little to quell the suspicion that there is a sizeable contingent of players who see playing for England as little more than a chore, a nuisance, another unwelcome source of pressure from expectant fans and a narrative-hungry media. It’s easy to imagine, for example, Clint Dempsey knowing his country was willing him to succeed and Wayne Rooney suspecting the that his was willing him to fail.
Does the apparent difference in mentality come from the contrasting weights of expectation? Quite possibly. Little was expected of the US side and allowed them to play without the fear of recrimination if things didn’t progress beyond the group stage. That’s not to confuse freedom to play with reckless abandon either; the US were successful because of their cast-iron defensive discipline and control. With England, much of the talk before the tournament was that with such a young squad, there existed uniquely low expectations on them. The pressure on the players was comparatively low, yet still it was only a solid if ultimately toothless performance against Italy that came of it. By the time England got round to Costa Rica they looked positively exhausted, exiting Brazil with whimpers and apologies.
Is there a unity issue? Premier League players are paid astronomical sums to spend 9 months of the year playing against each other under the clamour of screaming tribal fans, most of whom probably care far more about how their players conduct themselves for their club rather than their country. League managers argue and bicker with the national team manager over players’ fitness and availability for friendlies and qualifiers. But it’s hardly an excuse and one that would be baffling to any non-footballer who dreams of playing for their country. When England scored there was an undeniable outpouring of togetherness and mutual celebration, so they certainly don’t hate each other.
The problem is that motivation seems to vary considerably between individual players; David Beckham seemed to want to play for England until he couldn’t walk, and Steven Gerrard was incensed at Harry Redknapp’s comments about Tottenham players he knew didn’t fancy playing. On the other hand Jack Wilshere’s admission that he struggled to motivate himself for the Costa Rica game was troubling, as was Paul Scholes’ decision to first retire early from international duty and then decline an invitation to return.
There are no quick fixes. The difference between the mentality of the US players and that of the England players could be affected by everything: player personalities, man management, tactical organisation, training habits, media pressure and the constraints of their domestic league. But it would be comforting, at least, to know that the England players and management noticed the difference and let it sink in a little.