Dead Rubber: England’s Ground Zero

 

The lads

The lads

England have failed once more. In a novel variation on a theme, they’ve done it as quickly as they possibly could this time. Costa Rica provided a merciful bolt to the head, putting them down completely by beating Italy, meaning the English have nothing to play for against Costa Ricans who have nothing left to do. England will contest a pointless match, nothing more than a perfunctory act of clerical necessity. The ignominy of ignominies. The stark rubble of ground zero. They will try to win. We must accept with pained grace that they try. Some things just need to fail.

What team will Roy Hodgson play? There is clamour to unleash youth, a desperate torrent of subdued promise to flush away the filth. Offer opportunity, such as it is, to Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A sweetly-fragranced unguent to apply gingerly to the gaping exit wound. Players will need to make way for the cause, and one of them may well be Steven Gerrard, likely to retire from international football after the tournament, leaving him on 113 England appearances. Frank Lampard, so far an unused substitute, has made 105. The owners of a combined 218 caps could end up sitting on the bench together as their international careers come to an end. it would make for a sad end if it wouldn’t be so devastatingly appropriate.

Behold, two international careers that have dovetailed with such pointless synchronicity, petering out with trademark frustration. The final vestiges of a Golden Generation for which no amount of inverted commas will ever contain the requisite irony. While so many peers to have won 100+ caps for their countries have been around long enough to grasp triumph – Thuram, Buffon, Cafu, Xavi, Pirlo – England’s raft of recent centurions have departed only with regrets. David Beckham, Ashley Cole, now Gerrard and Lampard – all will remain tainted by the cumbersome label that earmarked them for greatness, but only weighed them down.

Let them die as they lived. Sit Gerrard and Lampard together on the same bench, competing over the same space for one last time, a tragic final encore of their greatest hit. If it sounds harsh, it’s because it needs to be, for the perverse benefit of the generation to follow.

Let the youngsters witness what it’s like to flounder completely, make them see what failure truly looks like. Two indisputably fine players reduced to ash. Monoliths of their domestic game: an internecine duopoly on the world stage. Then, only then, might a generation of England players emerge, blinking in the harshness that only fresh light can bring, and realise what it means to be a part of this team. Only then might they seek not to play for England, and everything that has now come to mean, but to play for playing’s sake. To play for the lost and pure pursuit of fun. Because no matter what Frankie and Stevie will insist, the first dozen memories of England they will ever have on any given day won’t be ones of fun. They will carry this burden, and this will be their true legacy.

218 wasted caps. Don’t let that be you, boys. Don’t let that be you.

Brief, Incredible Thoughts on Joe Hart’s Vines

Professional Russ Abbott lookalike and advert man Joe Hart has been doing the rounds on Twitter this week, in the form of two Vines that have caused amusement and bemusement in equal measure.

Joe Hart

One shows Hart’s eyes widening in apparent excitement as he shakes hands with Andrea Pirlo after Italy had beaten England on Saturday. The camera captures the ‘keeper saying to him “Wow, free-kick!”, in reference to Pirlo’s stunning, corkscrewing effort that left the bar shaking, and Hart so far ensconced in No Man’s Land that you could hear him mutter to himself that it’s probably time he altered the address details on his car insurance policy.

The second shows Hart moments after that same shot, with England losing and time ticking away. He dashes behind his goal to retrieve the wayward ball, and demands a swift return from the ball-boy. After failing to oblige immediately, Hart kicks the advertising hoarding in a moment of Ketsbaian apoplexy, screaming to a God that simply does not care.

Do these moments tell us more than the fact he is a fawning, self-regarding tit? Perhaps they hint at a wider malaise, something typically English, typically mediocre. That Hart would be so gushingly deferential to Pirlo’s moment of magic is almost embarrassing, akin to complimenting the chiselled abs of the man boffing the girl you like. That is simply what Pirlo does, what any world-class player does. They find ways to surprise, they deliver at the top level. That an England player would be so pleasantly shocked by such a moment casts him as just another rube with vague pretensions of joining the Magic Circle himself one day.

As for the strop with the ball, there are deeper concerns that stretch beyond the basic civil rights of Brazil 2014’s Football Circulation Operatives. Hart sometimes gives the impression that a lot of what he projects is for show, never moreso than two years ago, when he unveiled his self-vaunted distraction techniques during the doomed penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy. He bounced on his line, tongue flailing and arms waving, choosing to interpret a unique bravery in his silliness, when all the world saw was just silliness.

 ‘…12, Head and Shoulders….13, Doritos….14, Gillette….’]

‘…12, Head and Shoulders….13, Doritos….14, Gillette….’]

The thought that Hart, The Man of 1,000 Product Endorsements, might be preoccupied with his image will prompt scant surprise. But it smacked of a desire to be seen trying, an overwrought attempt at chest-beating, heart-on-sleeve passion, a contrived attempt at pandering to the patriots. Butcher’s blood, Gascoigne’s tears, Hart’s aggression – the latest addition to the gaudy tableau of misplaced English emotions. In that moment, Hart wanted so badly to be perceived as a mainstay and a standard-bearer. He so wanted to be seen as an England Player, without realising that he achieved it all too easily.

There is something strangely poignant about his relationship with Pirlo. Two years ago the midfielder put Hart and his shenanigans in place with a Panenka, a visceral demonstration of who was boss. The next time they met, Hart, remembering his station, showed the respect that the old man had not so much earned, but just took.

You can almost imagine them meeting in another place, another time, perhaps a chance encounter on holiday, with Hart slow-clapping through gritted teeth across a poker table, as Pirlo ignores all bluffs to nonchalantly lay down a Royal Flush. Hart might even shake his hand once more and say “Wow, cards!”, as Pirlo returns the gesture with confusion, not really understanding what the Englishman means by it all. Because all he did was win.