Last week, this column noted: ‘If major tournaments were job interviews, the first round is basically about keeping your trousers on and not accidentally punching the CEO of the company, or those psychometric tests where as long as you don’t say every Rorschach blot is a bomb or a pair of breasts, you’re fine. It’s the next round when you show them what you can do.’
Well, congratulations England on making it through the first round, but not so well done for essentially swaying into the interview room with a can in each hand, old chap dangling out of trousers, before loudly belching then staring wordlessly at the panel for the next ten minutes. The message from the rest of the continent was ‘We’ll let you know’ before puffing out their cheeks and gently placing England’s CV in the bin.
England are out of Euro 2016, something you’ll have probably noticed. And not just out, but out in the most abject fashion imaginable. A bigger humiliation than against the USA in 1950, because at least back then the English didn’t know anything about their opponents so could claim surprise. This will probably make a number of you sad, frustrated, angry even. But, dear reader, do not be blue: for the sake of the tournament, England’s elimination is a blessed relief.
England were objectively boring in France, right up until the moment everyone ruptured their spleens laughing at their defeat. There’s something delightfully English at only providing entertainment through ineptitude. Three games in which they toiled and produced the odd good bit of play, then a fourth which attempted to redefine calamity. They couldn’t even really fail with any élan: the post-mortems attempting to uncover behind-the-scenes reasons for the elimination didn’t turn up anything more scandalous than some confusing coaching and the players pissing around with a stuffed lion. The detail about Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington taking a boat trip up the Seine rather than scouting Iceland isn’t ideal, but it’s not exactly Davids v Hiddink, is it?
Once those of you who supported England can get over your disappointment, you should be pretty glad that they’re out because they contributed more or less nothing to the tournament. They were a place-holder, an administrative formality that had to be completed and out of the way as quickly as possible.
Pretty much everyone else has something to recommend them. Iceland we know about, with their team who look like they train by rowing longboats and their fans who do that ‘Hhhhhhhooooo’ chant thing that makes it sound like they’re the Celt mercenaries in ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’. Italy are worth keeping around just to watch Antonio Conte on the touchline, plus have provided a brilliant example of how to maximise limited talent, which is fascinating in itself. Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo, who oscillates between frightful, whinging arse to being perhaps the most extraordinary European athlete and footballer to play the game. Germany are the world champions, so they’re a draw as it is, but they’re particularly interesting at the moment as they’re still feeling their way into this post-Brazil world, not entirely sure what sort of side they are but still managing to win games in the process.
Wales just look like they’re having fun, striking the right balance of merely being absolutely delighted to be there while also recognising they have a good team and could do something pretty special, if they haven’t already. In their last game Belgium showed signs that they are in fact not a complete bunch of frauds, and this lauded generation of flying talent might actually congeal into a half-decent collective, whether that’s got anything to do with Marc Wilmots or not. Poland…yeah, actually, nobody will cry themselves to sleep if Poland go out, but even then they have a few players worth watching. And then there’s France, good to watch not only because of their freewheeling carousel of talent, but also because it’s always fascinating to see how a host nation copes with the pressure: if they aren’t successful, they’ll be the first France team not to win a tournament when hosting.
Now England are out, we can just watch the football. When our brave boys are still (technically) live contenders, everything else is almost treated as a prelude, a sideshow to the main event that is ENGLAND, as if nothing else is important. No longer will half-time be interrupted as Gary Lineker or Mark Pougatch (fine broadcasters both, just doing their jobs) throw to Gabby Logan or Gabriel Clarke (fine broadcasters both, just doing their jobs) to bring us the latest glassy-eyed bursts of nothingness from whichever player the FA media team permitted to speak that day. These are moments of the most crashing irrelevance, jazzed up by clever editing or snazzy lighting to no avail, but they exist because the main focus, even if there’s another actual game of football happening, is on England. The question of what this light-in-the-eyes fierce focus does to the psyche of the squad or indeed the nation is a bigger one, too lengthy to discuss here, but there’s no way it can be any good.
Surely we all get enough parochialism and narrow-minded focus only on our own team during the season, so for the next 11 days and seven games the English can simply observe, free of pressure. England are out. Now we can enjoy the football.