The England-World Cup Pattern

Earlier this year, I read Soccernomics, which in an opening discussion tries to explain why England’s performance in the World Cup is so consistently poor. The authors describe a pattern followed by the team, a pattern “perfected over England’s fourteen previous failures to win the World Cup away from home.” Timely and satisfying, here it is for your reading pleasure: 

Phase 1: Pretournament – Certainty that England will win the World Cup. “Everyone in England thinks we have a God-given right to win the World Cup.” 

Phase 2: During the tournament – England meets a former wartime Enemy. In five of their last seven World Cups, England was knocked out by either Germany or Argentina. [Of course, this book was written well before the start of the 2010 World Cup, and we can now state that this fact holds true of six of their last eight World Cups. -AA ] 

Phase 3: The English conclude that the game turned on One Freakish Piece of Bad Luck that could only happen to them. [To the list of English bad luck incidents described in the book on which to blame elimination, we can add Lampard’s shot today which bounced off the bar and in, unseen by the referees. And Green’s momentous error against the US, without which the team may have been spared a face-off against Germany in the round of 16.] 

Phase 4: Moreover, Everyone Else Cheated. Every referee opposes England. The Tunisian referee of 1986 who, like most people watching the game, failed to spot the “hand of God” has become legendary. 

Phase 5: England is knocked out without getting anywhere near lifting the Cup. The only exception was 1990, when they reached the semifinal. Otherwise, England has always been eliminated when still needing to defeat at least three excellent teams. [In 2010, those three teams, if they’d defeated Germany, would’ve been something like Argentina, Spain and Brazil.] 

Phase 6: The day after elimination, normal life resumes. The one exception is 1970, when England’s elimination may have caused Labour’s surprise defeat in the general election four days later. But otherwise the elimination does not bring on a nationwide hangover. To the contrary, England’s eliminations are celebrated, turned into national myths, songs, of commercials for pizza chains. 

Phase 7: A scapegoat is found. Beckham was scapegoated for the defeat against Argentina in 1998 only because he got a red card after fourty-six minutes. Often the scapegoat is a management figure: Wright as captain in 1950, Joe Mears as chief selector in 1958, and many managers since. Sometimes it is a keeper…

Phase 8: England enters the next World Cup thinking it will win it. The genius of the song “Three Lions,” English soccer’s unofficial anthem, is that it combines both narratives: “Thirty years of hurt / Never stopped me dreaming.” 


The chapter goes on to examine statistically England’s mediocrity and to debunk the myth that England always “under-performs.”  

“Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the US, Japan, Australia, Turkey — and even Iraq — are destined to become Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport.” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. (C) 2009 Nation Books. 



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