On some level, the temerity of England's optimism is kind of adorable.
No matter how often the English grow unreasonably hopeful and then come nowhere near winning a major tournament, their belief that the next Euro or World Cup is theirs to lose remains unshakable.
Digging into the archives makes for fairly hilarious reading:
● June 9, 1998: "Travel and hotels are already booked for England's appearance in the [World Cup] final on July 12." – Glenn Hoddle, England manager.
● June 8, 2000: "If we can get the very best out of the players at our disposal then we can win [the Euro], I really believe that." –Kevin Keegan, England manager.
● March 29, 2002: "If David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes all stay fit, we have definitely got a chance of winning [the World Cup]." –England legend and 1966 World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton.
● May 19, 2004: 'It will be a big disappointment if we don't come back with [Euro] winner's medals." – Wayne Rooney, England player.
● January, 2006: "I think we are one of six or seven teams who could win [the World Cup]," Sven-Goran Eriksson, England manager.
● Nov. 19, 2007: "We all believe we have the ability to go on and win [the Euro]. That has to be the target." – England player Peter Crouch
● Sep. 10, 2009: "If we can keep everyone fit and play with the spirit we showed against Croatia, then we can be real [World Cup] contenders." – Fabio Capello, England manager
● May 16, 2012: "The senior players I've spoken to … would tell you we can win [the Euro]." – England manager Roy Hodgson.
● June 6, 2014: "Can we win the World Cup? We are not low down the rankings [10th] so anyone who thinks we can't win has to be barking up the wrong tree. With the process we have, and the staff I have, that gives us a really good chance." – England manager Roy Hodgson
England, of course, won none of the above. Nor did it even reach the championship match. Also, that's a whole lot of ifs!
Still, the pattern is unchanging.
1. Solid but unremarkable national team generation shows a few glimmers in the months before the big tournament.
2. Public convinces itself that this is their year. Press ratchets up pressure.
3. "Premature" elimination that's actually very much in line with what could reasonably be expected of available talent.
4. Disappointment. Self-loathing. Inquest. Introspection.
If they don't win a trophy in France in the coming month, the English will complete a half century of futility. They've only ever won one major prize, the 1966 World Cup, a tournament they didn't deign to enter until 1950. Until then, the English assumed that their soccer was so far above the rest of the world's that there was no point sullying it with something so crass as international competition. They have never won the Euro.
But in the face of all that, the English sort of consider it their birthright to be champions of soccer. They claim to have invented the sport. They certainly codified and popularized it at the start of the 20th century. The enduring irony, however, is while England once taught the rest of the soccer world to walk and ride a bicycle, so to speak–just about every major soccer nation's history can be traced back to the influence of an early English manager–they are perpetually stuck behind the times. There's always something archaic about their tactics, something dated about their style, and even something retrograde about the kind of players they produce. It wasn't until English clubs stopped being able to compete well in the European continental competitions that the old rough-and-tumble, kick-and-rush philosophy of muscular soccer was slowly abandoned.
The Dutch have a sociological theory that translates to the Law of the Slowing Head Start. It posits, more or less, that anyone with a significant head start on rivals is bound to evolve and develop more slowly than them. That's essentially England in soccer. The ongoing overestimation of its national team is one of the last vestiges of England's once-mighty empire, a hangover of perceived superiority and hubris.
The English habitually confuse the enormous wealth and excellent branding of their domestic Premier League for national adequacy in soccer, even though most teams field just a handful of local players–if that–and fewer managers still are actually English. The Premier League isn't an English league, it's an international marketplace for elite soccer players and managers, employed by global clubs that so happens to be in England.
Lately, however, a weird thing has happened. England has a young and exciting team. One that's collectively proficient at everything it needs to be good at and at least serviceable in every position. There is real and tough competition for jobs. And Roy Hodgson, an old manager who once embodied the stodginess of the English ideas on soccer–reportedly tying ropes between players to teach them to move as lines–has become flexible and youth-oriented.
For once, the country's endless optimism may not be misguided.
The only real issue is Wayne Rooney. The aging captain will turn 30 this fall. It's been almost a decade and a half since he emerged as a phenom. And he has somehow made good on all that promise in spite of the burden of a nation's hopes and dreams. He is surely one of the two or three best players his island nation has ever produced–he has more England goals, 52, than any other man–yet to many, he has somehow still fallen a tad short.
And now the prodigy has become a problem. He's too prolific, too ballyhooed and too young to bench. Perhaps too famous. But there isn't really a position for him. Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy make for a better front line, as do their understudies Daniel Sturridge and the 18-year-old Marcus Rashford. Dele Alli, the 20-year-old, is better equipped to play behind them in Rooney's other role. So where does this leave Wazza Roo? This is a question that has vexed England. But it's a luxury problem. Because this team brims with talent.
This time around, the English have made no grand pronouncements about winning the Euro. And yet, the English might win the Euro.