Through renouncing the idea of their own national superiority they can most truly affirm the grandeur and dignity of their own people, of their own literature and science.
– Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook
To add sport to this minute litany of life’s periodical elements of literature and science is not a step too far I believe. Often, sport can reveal that potent sense of ‘self’ equally well. Validity is assured if we apply Grossman’s sentiment not to the intended Armenians, but to the English.
Grossman’s Armenian Sketchbook reveals the first impressions of a mid 20th century Russian author deemed too incendiary for even Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’. His first impressions of an alternative life under a shared Soviet stewardship are stark yet familiar. Although they dress, eat and speak differently, Stalin still reigns supreme in the centre of Yerevan. There he stands in bronze, the signifier of all that is ‘proper’ in the Soviet Union, regardless of in which sector you reside.
In an altogether less volatile outlook, Wembley Stadium commands its own ‘great and terrible’ presence on the face of football’s empire. In being a greater talking point than the Champions League final it hosted last May, it is a stadium possessing an aura of Olympus untenable to the purpose-built arena harbouring such ambition, with which it shares a city. Thankfully, Wembley’s greatness is ascending while its terror grows scanter still.
Grossman’s arrival in Armenia coincided with a somewhat shame-ridden removal of Stalinist iconography by a ‘cleaner’ Khrushchev operation. The greatness of the empire they wished to retain; the careless deaths of millions they no longer wished to face. On its erection, Wembley was representative of an English set-up still basking in the promise of a golden generation. This was their brand of carelessness.
When ground was broken and visuals appeared of what one could expect, five international tournaments and their preliminary qualification games would take place before England would qualify for the World Cup of 2014. The frenzied expectations of 2004, the hopefulness of a World Cup on familiar European soil in 2006, the quiet summer of 2008, the ‘easy’ actions of 2010 gone awry and the beckoning moment of self-appraisal following the commendable efforts of 2012 all served to bring English football to this moment of clarity.
Wembley had appeared a stadium not befitting the efforts of its chief representatives much like the devilish, towering Stalin incited disgust so unbefitting of the majority of Armenians Grossman meets who are forced to witness Stalin daily. English football was not good enough for Wembley much like most living in the Soviet States were too good for the system they served. The evolution of the Soviet Union from Communist collective to the cluster of various nations still suffering from the ramifications of the 20th Century and beyond is an astonishing process. England’s ascent into a realm of deserving the stadium built in their honour is of similar interest – to me at least.
In the opening quote, Grossman indicates the necessary state of mind which must be in place if you wish the medium to flourish. One similarly cannot love football if their love is based on superiority. Although it was surely exaggerated in Ireland and abroad, it remained a consistent assumption that England’s footballing fans forever believed their nation held highest rank in football. The overenthusiastic broadcasters would continually entice their experienced panellists to take the public punt on England reinvigorating the glory of ’66. Some of lesser guile would occasionally take the bait. Although 1996 – the European Championships held in England in which the host nation reached the semi-finals – benchmarked the relative failings of the next eight possible international tournaments, England fans have often had the objective ‘right’ to be more confident than the eventual results deemed plausible.
Ultimately this hope/delusion could be felt at its greatest at the appointments of Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. Coupled by the emergence of said ‘golden generation’ as they so conclusively left their mark on the domestic game, the alignment of top manager with top players seemed foolproof; by 2012 the lacerations of this unpredictable whip are finally being tended to.
One does not necessarily need to delve any deeper into why England did not perform as expected. It would be of greater use to simply enquire as to why the expectations were ever so high. The frenzied media which are as associated with English football as the white of their jerseys are often scandalised as the wild-card in the pack. Their distinct power to make or break a manager, player or entire campaign signifies why Sir Alex Ferguson recently dubbed it the ‘worst in football’. However, it cannot be withheld that an equally vociferous media presence must surely be part and parcel of football in the more successful nations of Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil etc.
The victimisation of one’s self can take shape in the nationalistic outbursts of pride that Grossman earlier alluded to. It is now the famed reaction of the German F.A. to a relatively poor showing of the national side in Euro 2004 that grips the English imagination. Despite having reached a World Cup final with a defensive assuredness many nations would crave only two years previously, the German F.A. set to work at making sure the glorious would never again be seldom. Although they have of yet no international trophy to show for these recent efforts, four consecutive finishes in the semi-finals – one runner up finish in 2008 – of the four tournaments since are a sign of definite progress. Consider also the meteoric rise of Spanish football and the consistently high finishing Italians and a picture begins to emerge in complete correlation to Grossman’s views on superiority.
What then is becoming of England today? Ultimately their reasoning for hope is now built on the fact that their problems have been openly registered. The gestation of Sky Sports’ statisticians in particular yielded forth the incredible scarcity of England’s qualified coaches available to nurture youth in comparison to Germany and Spain. When reading Guillem Balague’s biography of Pep Guardiola or considering Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger Tor! – just two examples of two nations even though more far reaching examples can be found – it is instantly clear that a general recipe for success was instilled long before the recent upturn in their respective nations success. What is most important for England is the fact that they do not consider the possibility of a quick-fix.
The recent appointment of Greg Dyke as the Chairman of the English F.A. has been one garnished by positive aspects and specified cynicism. It has been highly unusual yet revealingly telling that the generally muted on such affairs Gary Lineker addressed the nation’s supporters so frankly. With his insightful knowledge of the game, Lineker damned Dyke’s proposed commission into investigating the best means of nurturing England’s youth as ‘pointless’ given the inclusion of some of his perceived ‘weaker’ candidates. Consider the equally grim conclusions reached by The Guardian’s Marina Hyde amongst others last weeks and the once positive outlook casts a discerning shadow.
Although the road to salvation may never become realised in the lifetime of this squad of players, it is make or break for England’s yet unheralded youth. It was with astonishment that I recently heard a broadcaster announce that England’s relatively recent 2-2 draw in an exhibition match with Brazil in the Maracana would go down as a truly unforgettable affair. How could a nation as proud as England consider a meaningless result as this to be unforgettable? It later dawned on me that surely now their priorities have altered. The calm façade of the manager they now possess allows the nation to regroup with hope and little expectation. Times are now not so volatile and each positive step imbues their growing confidence that they too can step from the outside in. England will not wish to progress this period of low expectation. Now is their moment of clarity: Stalin has fallen, a ‘thaw’ has ensued. Let those lessons learned become scripture. Wembley is watching, England expects.