Germany meets Greece in soccer’s European Championship on Friday, and–given the crisis that ties together their two star-crossed economies–life once more will become the metaphor for sports, and sports for life. The teams will be at the mercy of countless match commentators with 90 minutes to fill and a half-handful of goals to fill it with at best. And don’t think the opportunities for jokes along the lines of “there’s no bailing out this team” or “the goal deficit really needs to be reduced” end this week. Angela Merkel’s side could meet Italy in the semifinal and Portugal or Spain in the final.
So, do you root for the profligate Greeks or the skinflint Germans? Do you put on the red and gold of Spain’s strip and cheer them to a cup that the country’s prime minister has already suggested is a prerequisite for lifting Spain out of depression? Or what about the Italians, hoisted by European Central Bank President (and Italian, no less) Mario Draghi’s petard into government collapse? Or maybe you admire the austere line of the Teutonic power, and think only Germany has earned the right to victory.
I say none of the above. Whether on the merits of the Eurozone dispute or on a needs-based analysis, we English are the most deserving of your fandom in this Cup. First, on the Teutonic-Mediterranean quarrel, a pox on both their houses. We were right all along that the monetary union was a mistake, and mind you we took a lot of grief for not playing well with others. Britain didn’t lie about the state of its fiscal health to get in like Italy or Greece, nor did it ignore those lies in order to prop up domestic export industries like Germany.
As to who needs this the most, compared to the bankruptcy staring Greece in the face–a crisis of recent vintage–English soccer has had nothing to put in the vault for well nigh two generations. Greece actually won the Euro tournament in 2004. And Germany won in 1996. Spain, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Italy have all won either the Euro competition or the World Cup since 1980. But do you remember the last time England won a major international football competition?
No? Well, nor do I. Because it was before I was born. It has been 20 years since I left Britain and frankly the memories of England’s footballers crashing out in the qualifying rounds, or the group stage, or once, even, in the semifinal have merged with disappointments over another loss to New Zealand’s rugby team, or repeated trouncings by the West Indies cricketers, or the last Briton exiting Wimbledon in the second round yet again. Still, I’m pretty sure the combined psychological impact of all that defeat has been crippling. We’re running out of sports to invent so we can lose at them.
The last time England won an international football trophy was before the vast majority of people alive on the planet today were born. It was before the moon landings, Cabbage Patch Kids, and videocassette recorders. In Britain, the Queen hadn’t even had a Silver Jubilee let alone a Diamond one, there wasn’t yet a Sex Pistols song asking God to Save Her, and Prince Charles was actually, honestly, still considered a heartthrob.
It was the 1966 World Cup. And that, by the way, wasn’t just the last time England actually won a significant international football trophy. It was also the first time England won a trophy. That would be an all-time total of one trophy. The nation has had a national team since 1870–it was the first in the world, alongside Scotland’s. That means the chance that England wins a Euro or World Cup in any given year averages one in 142.
Of course England supporters have been robbed of victory often enough–coordinated once by the hand of God, again by the blind eye of the referee. But the sad fact of the matter is that England, where the beautiful game was invented, where the first rule book was written, where the oldest clubs in the world reside, where the first league took root and the first competition took place, and where entrepreneurial fans pioneered the art of streaking across the field buck naked, has won only one-third the number of European Championships and World Cups as–brace yourself–France.
Also, back to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Being Britain, it simply poured cats and dogs with rain on the celebrations this month. And not chihuahuas and kittens, but dobermans and overstuffed lions. Added to that, London is about to host the Olympics, which will make travel on the un-air-conditioned Underground this summer as pleasant as getting stuck in a locked sauna stuffed with rotting beef carcasses. So, really, the British are due a metaphorical perfect sunny day to make up for it all.
Still, for all Wayne Rooney’s talent and the clean sweep in the group stage, the odds against an England victory (we face Italy in the quarterfinals) in Euro 2012 are long. So perhaps it isn’t too early to start fantasizing about a future victory, and how to achieve it. And the only time England won in the past, of course, was when we hosted the World Cup. That final–against Germany–took place in Wembley Stadium. It gave rise to the delightfully cosmopolitan and increasingly historic English fan chant “Two World Wars and One World Cup” (for the record: Germany has won three World Cups and three European Championships, which might suggest something about the efficacy of the ditty, but no matter).
Sadly FIFA–the sport’s governing body–wouldn’t let England host the World Cup again any time soon, probably because we didn’t bribe its executives as much as some other countries allegedly did. This might suggest that some of England’s international football victory problems are homegrown. After all, the U.K. is happy to stump up a billion-dollar bribe to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. For the love of the game, couldn’t the country’s soccer officials have shelled out a few hundred thousand to the odd FIFA representative? Apparently not. Where’s the commitment? Where’s the resolve? England’s football leadership has shown all of the backbone of Ben Bernanke contemplating a third round of quantitative easing.
So England will have to look for another option to end its trophy-winning stagnation. One idea: make the team more competitive by joining across borders in an ever stronger union. The United Kingdom soccer community could bring together the football talent of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and bind them under a single authority and set of regulations. What could possibly go wrong?
Charles Kenny is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation. In his distant youth he was a lackadaisical supporter of Oxford United.
*Photo courtesy xispo.