I watched the England v Iceland game last night. It was a dispiriting ninety minutes… for many different reasons. Before the game, losing to Iceland was, according to the pundits, “unimaginable”, “unacceptable", "impossible". One of the three possible results - win, lose, draw - had simply been discounted.
The England players looked fearful, inhibited, bereft of ideas, hobbled by a nation’s expectations. They played without joy, without enthusiasm, with a kind of pent-up panic. The fear of losing outweighed the will to win. “We are in a results business”, Roy Hodgson said, in his short resignation speech, deciding to jump before he was pushed.
When heightened expectations aren’t matched by performance, heads must roll. Someone must be made accountable for failure. The fans make more demands: the new manager must pick younger players, who have yet to be paralised by failure, or older players, who can bring guile and experience. England must play a different formation; they must go “back to basics” (whatever that means). There’ll be hand-wringing, soul-searching, scapegoating. Whatever a manager decided to do, the team should have done something else. Hindsight is 20/20 vision.
What fans cannot do is to sit back and simply enjoy the game, as it unfolds. Without having to carry the burden of unrealistic expectation, the England might have performed better. They would at least have played with freedom and smiles on their faces. They are, after all, well-paid athletes at the peak of their powers.
Iceland, with a population of just 300,000 people, fully deserved their famous victory. They’ll be writing sagas about it. I'll be rooting for them in their next game... against France...