25 JUNE 2006. Stuttgart. David Beckham defies illness to put England into the last-eight of the World Cup with a free kick from thirty yards against Ecuador. England were into their third quarter-final in as many major tournaments. Things looked promising. A side full of superstars went out that day: Beckham was joined by the likes of Ferdinand, Terry, Ashley Cole, Lampard and Gerrard all coming into the best years of their careers.
That Sunday night remains the last time that the England men’s international team have won a knock-out match at a major tournament.
Supporting England is pain. There’s no two ways about it. Millennials have seen only a handful of moments which can be said to inspire pride in England. When the highest heights we’ve seen is a scrappy 1-0 victory against Ecuador, you know something is up. The lack of joy since 2006 has turned to apathy that now runs deep.
Is the lack of success really all that is causing the lack of interest and lack of faith we have in the national team? No, this problem is more complex. The disinterest that started to grow after the 2006 World Cup comes down to English clubs, foreign owners, English players and English fans.
The national team was a victim of the success that English teams enjoyed between 2005 and 2012. Eight Champions League finalists in as many seasons coming from the Premier League created a collective attitude in all of which side-lines the national team. The void created by a poor national team, including a non-appearance at Euro 2008 was filled by scintillating club sides. The apathy had been consolidated.
It’s been just as bad at board-level: predominantly foreign owners have shunted off duty towards their cash-cow country and the development of footballers in said country took big damage. This foregoing of promising talents in the U18 and U21 levels results in a lack of exciting players and creates an England squad which is full of dogged but unexciting players who are there as a result of physical attributes, not technical ability. It is only Rashford and Sterling who have an explosive ability to wow fans currently.
This has been going on for over a decade and has trickled down to the fans who now would prefer to watch the excitement generated by their club’s foreign players; Cristiano Ronaldo, Mo Salah, Eden Hazard et al. This is now a firm part of our footballing identity.
All of this has bred an unidentifiable England team and an indifferent fan base. The team tasked with reviving pride have been foolish. We do not need to do what Germany; Brazil or Spain do. Opposition are not what we want to be; the only goal should be providing pride for the wearers of the Three Lions.
Having an ideal that you believe in, even if it contradicts everything that has gone before, is how the greatest teams have been made. 1970 Brazil, 1974 Netherlands, 2010 Spain. These are considered rightly to be the greatest national sides of all time. Why? Because they were innovators. Sides that saw the existing status-quo and rewrote it.
The true barometer of success in this endeavour will be whether Wembley can stop having its most exciting moment be a Mexican wave and actually start to produce some exciting, explosive and entertaining football for the fans after so many years of heartbreak.
11 years, 10 months and 14 days after that night in Stuttgart, 5 major tournaments, a now-forgotten “golden generation”, and a new £800m stadium built, the wait goes on.