It was the classic hangover. By the end of Euro 2000, English football previously in party mood, was pulling the covers over its head and imploring the world to go away and leave it alone. Defeat to Germany, again on penalties, in the semi-final of Euro 96 had seemed unlucky. However, defeat to Argentina in the knockout stages of the France 98 pointed to an immaturity that had been exemplified in the events which had shaped the game. A miserable expulsion from Euro 2000 was the summary punishment.
While the mood at the time begged you to do so, an analysis of the France 98 exit cannot be a portrayal of England as naive innocents defeated by Argentinian cynicism. Despite the superb run and finish that put England ahead, Michael Owen, then 18, later admitted that he had dived to win the penalty that had allow England to equalise after Gabriel Batistuta’s opening goal in the match (also a penalty). The way Owen had dived spoke more to the negative stereotypes of the Argentinian team than that of English one. However, for all the skulduggery that was going on, it was Argentina who had been smarter than England in exploiting opportunities. The carefully crafted free kick that had allowed Javier Zanetti to bring the game back to 2-2 (following Owen’s brilliant 2nd goal) had been rehearsed for years and it showed.
And then there was the Diego Simeone affair. The matter that would generate headlines, insults and religious lessons (one Church displaying a billboard saying that “God forgives even David Beckham”) began with a normal 50-50. Beckham and Simeone had challenged for a loose ball but, as Beckham lay on the ground after the collision, he had needlessly kicked out at Simeone. And “El Cholo” was going to make sure the referee knew it. The subsequent red card shown in Beckham’s direction left England going into extra time in a World Cup knockout with 10 men. Try as they might, penalties were inevitable for England with, as usual, the predictable result.
However, the English reaction to the defeat was all the more interesting for the wider context that it entertained. The defeat to Argentina would be explicitly attached not just to David Beckham the player but, more specifically, to David Beckham the man and what he represented.
By 1998, Britain was signposting the way to the country we now are, with all the trimmings. The new Britain, according to then foreign secretary Robin Cook, had become a country “open to new influence….in every aspect of our national life.” but these new influences were not accepted by all quarters of society. Cook himself had noted:
“Sadly, it has become fashionable for some to argue that British identity is under siege…”
Beckham, a multimillionaire sarong-wearing cockney with a popstar partner, was an emblem of the shift in British culture that some were dissatisfied with. Even as a teenager, with no particular love for Manchester United and their works, I had a strong sense that the undertone behind the specific and vitriolic criticism of Beckham after France 98 was that he was not British enough in his behaviour. The absurd hanging effigies of Beckham, the press hysteria and supporter abuse (that continued all the way up to and including Beckham’s appearances at Euro 2000) was too deep and to individualised in nature for it to be the usual disenchantment with English footballing failure. It felt to me that Beckham represented a shift in society that some felt had gone too far.
English football has always closely defined itself with the notion of community (whatever the class, sector or region it thrives in). In such a context, it is only natural for there to be a regular suspicion of individuals who define themselves differently from the group, even if their talents allowed.
English football has always closely defined itself with the notion of community (whatever the class, sector or region it thrives in). In such a context, it is only natural for there to be a regular suspicion of individuals who define themselves differently from the group, even if their talents allowed. In such circumstances, Beckham would be a ripe target for how England, the country, and English football felt about divergences from the norm. That is, until Beckham himself would assist in spectacularly changing these landscapes at a later date.
The journalist Tim Vickery refers to Brazil’s soul searching as a nation after the country’s unexpected defeat, on home soil, to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final. The defeat had particularised itself in Brazilians’ understanding of their national character:
“In manic depressive style, the nation that had been prepared to celebrate their rise instead turned on themselves…Brazilians, it was said, were a mongrel race…lacking in moral fibre”.
The English were not going through quite the same ludicrous exercise in self-chastisement but there were similarities. By the time England had been unceremoniously dumped out of Euro 2000, at the group stages, a debate had also begun to rage about the number of foreign players in English football and its effect on the national team. Manchester United apart (given the entrenchment of the class of 92), the big English clubs of the day were fielding (and producing) an increasingly fewer number of English players. Chelsea had been especially singled out for criticism after playing without a single English player in a league game against Southampton in 1999.
With hindsight, it’s possible to note that this was the exact time that the next “golden generation” of English footballers were bubbling under and ready to make their entrance. These were “golden generation” of the England U21s: Frank Lampard, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry. However, with perhaps the exception of Gerrard and Ferdinand, they had not made their major strides by the turn of the millennium.
As a result, the general attitude to the failures of the national team were being closely tied to the direction of not just English but also British club football’s relationship to homegrown talent. Despite the Henrik Larsson inspired Celtic and Michael Mols fuelled Rangers, Scotland (who had been at France 98) were not going anywhere fast with their national team. The Scots had been knocked out in the qualifying for Euro 2000 by Kevin Keegan’s England, while Wales and Northern Ireland had also not qualified for the tournament.
In this respect the parallel with the Brazilians in 1950 started to develop. The British discussion by late 2000 had turned towards loose self-critical rhetoric for answers. In the then pre-social media world, I was to be introduced to my first encounters with radio phone-in complaints about “pride” and “passion” being the solution to all the ills of the English national team. This was in addition to a growing antagonism towards the Premier League from which came the usual finish. There was something unwholesome, you would hear it said, about these foreigners who came over here, took club money and brought their dirty cheating habits with them. Especially when they were keeping the young English players out of the team and making the national team suffer as a result.
Exceptions such as Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool’s UEFA Cup win in 2001 and the stomp to the Champions League semi-finals of David O’Leary’s “babies” at Leeds United in the same season, would provide fillips to the general narrative. Yet, as Real Madrid were lighting the touchpaper to Florentino Perez’s first “Galactico” programme, with world record fees for first Luis Figo in 2000 and later Zinedine Zidane in 2001, there was the sense that only Manchester United would be able to keep up at the European top table.
Not only was English football not producing enough English equivalents to Class A eggs like Zidane and Figo but it now couldn’t keep up with signing the foreign ones either. By World Cup 2002, the impudent free kick from the young Ronaldinho to send England out gave notice to a new footballing order. England and English football was not where it was at. The question was now whether English football would be able to rise to the challenge in any meaningful sense.