England's shame: World’s top soccer league, but lousy national team

Another disappointment?</p>

Another disappointment?

LONDON, UK — In the hours after Arsenal Football Club took home the FA Cup on May 17, the streets of London’s Finsbury Park neighborhood felt like the aftermath of a bloodless coup.
People cheered. Strangers hugged. The drivers of red double-decker buses pounded jubilantly on their horns. Even the policemen patrolling the beer-slicked streets were smiling.

For Arsenal fans, the first cup win in nine years was a moment of triumph. There was also a bittersweet note to the celebrations — this scene will almost definitely not repeat itself after any of England’s World Cup games.

“England is rubbish at football,” said Andrew Cook, 40, a ventilation fitter from London, while a riotous crowd danced in a spray of beer in front of the Twelve Pins pub nearby. “I’m English. I want to see England do well, but I know they won’t.”

Tony Wray, a 33-year-old London surveyor, agreed.

“You watch the World Cup with the anticipation of, ‘When are we going to go out?’ not ‘When are we going to win,’” he said.

It’s an embarrassing and maddening open secret on this “footie”-mad island: The home of world’s richest and most famous soccer league regularly flops at the world’s biggest soccer tournament.

Odds on England taking home the cup this year are 28 to 1, compared with 3 to 1 for favorite Brazil, said Alex Donohue of the betting agency Ladbrokes.

The nation’s hopes aren’t exactly riding high. A Home Office report earlier this month on extending pub hours during the cup said there was a “high probability” that England would not advance to the second round, and gave the side only an 11 percent chance of moving past the quarter-finals.

“The government is of course 100 percent behind the England football team and we wish the players every success in the World Cup," an embarrassed-sounding Home Office spokeswoman told reporters after the dismal forecast leaked.

Not even the country’s best minds can get behind this squad.

“As we say in science, England couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo,” said physicist Stephen Hawking of its penalty kicks, in a recent analysis of the team’s chances commissioned by betting agent Paddy Power.


This nation loves its footie passionately. As is often the case with love, when it comes to the national team, England fans may be driven more by their hearts than their heads.

England has won the World Cup only once, in 1966. Since then, it has failed to qualify three times — in 1974, 1978 and 1994 — and has never made it past the semifinals.

Those were the days.

They are coming off their worst performance in World Cup history, a 13th place finish in South Africa in 2010.

“The great thing about the patriotism of England is that we have a much bigger estimation of ourselves and our sporting prowess than we actually have,” Donohue said.

Their dismal international performance is not for lack of fame and fortune.

The English Premier League is the world’s wealthiest soccer league. Five of the world’s 10 richest soccer clubs are English, according to Forbes magazine.

Last year, the league auctioned off domestic live TV rights for a record $9.2 billion, dwarfing similar deals struck by international competitors like Italy’s Lega Serie A ($1.2 billion) and Spain’s La Liga ($860 million).

And England has one of the most competitive leagues on the planet. In the past 15 years, Premier League teams have made it nine times to the finals of the Champions League, an annual competition for Europe's top soccer clubs.

It’s also, arguably, the most famous football league in the world. Kids from Nottingham to Nairobi wear English teams’ jerseys. For a while, former Manchester United star David Beckham’s name was the second-most recognized foreign word in Japan after Coca-Cola.

There’s no shortage of theories from the nation’s oft-disappointed fans.

“We are emotionally frail. When we get to the World Cup, we just freeze,” said Jonathan Garforth, a 30-year-old lawyer celebrating in Finsbury Park.

“We think too much. We’re a nation of thinkers,” he said, shouting over the sounds of a nearby group singing an unprintable song about Arsenal’s rival, the Tottenham Hotspurs.

Others took a more economic view. The English Premier League picks from among the best players in the world, not just the best in Britain. When it’s World Cup time, those international stars return to their home countries and play against their British teammates.

Of the 12 Arsenal players competing in Brazil, for example, only two will be playing for England.

“The home-grown players don’t make it to the top because of the foreign influence,” Wray said. “We’re dependent on the foreign influence because it draws the cameras, it sells around the world, but home-grown football suffers.”

They may not be optimistic, but England’s fans are loyal. Pubs around the country will stay open late on England’s game days — the Home Office relented on that one — and even the most cynical supporters said they’ll still root for the Three Lions.

And in the streets of Finsbury Park, fan after fan offered the same piece of trivia as proof that fate will not allow England to go winless again. Two things happened in 1966, they said: England won the World Cup, and Austria won the Eurovision Song Contest, the cheesy Europe-wide sing-off.

Earlier this month, a beard-sporting drag queen named Conchita Wurst took the Eurovision trophy home to Austria for the first time since — you guessed it — 1966.

Take heart, England. Anything is possible.