“If the French were really intelligent, they’d speak English.”
[Wilfrid Sheed – “Essays in Disguise”]
As an Englishman (yes, I “self-identify” as one) I’ve always been proud of my intense dislike for the French. Their arrogant hauteur, vainglorious boasting, gauche directness and worst of all, their pompous dismissal of all and any English achievements (the English language being the primary) conspire to induce a deep loathing of Frenchness in the English psyche. Yet it’s a loathing tempered by an unstated (except on occasions such as this) acknowledgement that nonetheless there is a certain enviable flamboyance about the Gallic ouevre; a flamboyance that we English can admire but frankly would struggle to recreate (were we even to attempt to). Well as a proud Englishman I’d like to extend my congratulations – félicitations – to the French for their superb and well deserved victory over Croatia in the final today. They provided ample proof throughout the past four weeks of their champions credentials, eliminating Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium en route to the final. The sublime artistry and pizzazz of their midfield and attacking play was backed up by an equally magnificent, well disciplined and marshalled defence, and with the coming of age of Kylian Mbappé during the course of the tournament it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the future of European football for now looks distinctively bleu.
Alas for England. The quest for glory will endure another four years. For all the public chatter of our “achievement” of reaching the semi-finals it behoves us to reflect on the fact that our only victories were against lowly Tunisia (just about), Panama (an also-ran team and World Cup debutants), Colombia (on penalties) and Sweden (a distinctly average team). The first decent opposition we encountered (if we ignore the group stage encounter with the Belgian B-team) we lost to and while we might hide behind the excuse of “it was a pointless third place play-off” there is simply no escaping the enormous gulf in quality between teams such as Belgium and us. In many ways Croatia did us a favour last Wednesday as a thrashing by France (which is what would have undoubtedly transpired) is probably the last thing our collective sense of confidence needed right now.
For all our (albeit unspoken) pretensions of greatness the bitter truth is that we are minnows on the international stage – both footballing and political. Revelling in past glories and vain talk of “having invented the game” have not delivered us a trophy nor will it likely do so. If progress is to be achieved it needs us to first acknowledge the painful verity that we are, as things stand, simply not very good at football; we possess no God-given right to even qualify for the World Cup (remember 1994?) let alone progress beyond the group stages. And frankly our style of play sucks and requires a major re-haul. In a similar vein if as a nation we wish to return to a level of economic prosperity commensurate to our undoubtedly expansive talent pool there needs to be a major rethink about our domestic governance (power, privilege and the insidious suppression of dissent) and equally about our place in the global geopolitical scheme of things.
Brexit is a looming disaster that we must reverse – for all its imperfections our membership of the EU is a (major) net positive. Britain (of which England is, of course, the primary constituent nation) can have a bright future but in order to realise it it must first come to terms with the end of Empire and all its attendant trappings and entitlements. Furthermore it’s about time as a nation we truly ditched the notion of de sanguinis Englishness and started regarding (and concomitantly treating) all citizens as equals regardless their respective bloodlines or religious affiliations.
Now as never before we need to look inwards just as the Germans (and Japanese) learned to do after the devastation of the Second World War. In that respect we have a huge advantage over our continental competitors – for whatever their respective advantages, that uniquely English trait of pragmatic common-sense far outweighs them all. It behoves us to start exhibiting it once again.
Once again well done to the French and let’s hope that’s the last time we have to utter those words for a while.