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Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Monday, 28 June 2010 11:37 UK

Hysterical, deluded and thoroughly English

Foldable chair

By Tom de Castella

England has exited the football World Cup and once again failed to live up to expectations. But why do the English fool themselves, again and again, into believing they can win, and might they actually enjoy it?

According to Wikipedia, hysteria is "a state of mind of unmanageable fear or emotional excesses. The fear is often caused by multiple events in one's past that involved some sort of severe conflict."

Sound familiar?

After a humiliating 4-1 defeat to Germany, England has once again entered an unofficial period of national mourning. It's something the country goes through after every World Cup or European Championship exit - from euphoric anticipation to shock and despair in the space of 90 minutes.

It's a communal moment, people sharing the pain with each other at the bus stop. It's that thing about big World Cup games that end in tragedy
Simon Kuper

So have the English become hysterical in their dealings with the national side?

Harry Eyres, writer of the Financial Times's Slow Lane column, believes the passion has taken on a desperate, obsessive quality: "Too much seems to hang on it. We appear needy as a nation. There's an extraordinarily neurotic fear and excessive expectation about watching England. I don't think we're in touch with reality."

The world is entranced by the beautiful game every four years. But not everyone seems to invest as much importance in their national side.

On holiday in Spain during the 2002 World Cup, Eyres remembers pulling into a bar in Andalucia to catch the end of the Spanish team's quarter final with South Korea.

The talented Spanish side went on to lose but there was no vitriol, Eyres recalls: "It was amazing how lightly they took it. This was a working class, blue collar bar. Can you imagine a pub full of builders in England when the team get knocked out - it would be a tragedy. My impression is that in Spain it just doesn't matter so much."

Some believe the English feel entitled to win the World Cup - which derives from the entitlement of Empire.

But historian Linda Colley, who specialises on empire and nationalism, says too much is attributed to loss of the colonies.

"Surely the more crucial issues are that we invented soccer, so feel a proprietorial interest in it," says Colley, speaking to the BBC News website. "And secondly soccer is hyped and commercialised more here than in many other countries. The broader issue may well be uncertainty about collective identity."

Writer Simon Kuper sees a similar imbalance of expectation when England is compared with France, where he lives. If the English did badly in this competition, the French - finalists in the last World Cup - did even worse, getting knocked out in the first round.

But in France, says Kuper, author of Why England Lose, no-one thought the home side would actually win.

What enraged the French public was not poor displays on the pitch but the mutinous behaviour of the team's arrogant stars.

"Unlike the English the French are able to switch off the team when they're angry with it. People are disgusted. But they don't go into the anguish of looking at the country as a whole. They just say the team are horrible people."

Not only do the English never learn. They appear to thrive on the masochism of outlandish hope followed by tragic defeat, he argues.

"I think people enjoy the ritual. Every four years it happens and takes you back to previous tournaments. It's a communal moment, people sharing the pain with each other at the bus stop. It's that thing about big World Cup games that end in tragedy - usually on penalties, ideally to Germany."

But that ritual comes at a price, says Kuper, who sees a crucial difference between the attitude of the English side and that of his native Holland.


"When a Dutch player scores he's happy but when an England player does it's all clenched jaw, relief and anger. It's very stressful for the England players. It's like with children at school, when they know the expectations are too high and they can't meet them."

But if England is deceiving itself about its ability, who or what is guilty of inflating expectations unrealistically high?

Tabloud papers
'Here we go again'... and there they went again

Britain's tabloid press frequently seem to overplay the side's ability. But that's no surprise, says Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism and a former editor of the Daily Mirror. Playing on the hopes of fans, and reinforcing their disappointment, is all part of the never ending circulation battle.

"The biggest football fans are tabloid readers. And the popular papers both respond to and ramp up the public mood. And it is our national sport. You don't get this level of interest for cricket."

But there is something unique about Britain's newspaper industry, he says: "We are different in having a competitive national press. So the papers can galvanise a population across the whole country. They can't do that in France or Germany where much of the press is regional."

Back in 1966 when England won the World Cup and Greenslade was a young reporter for the now defunct Barking Advertiser there were only two national tabloids. Today the newspaper scene is almost unrecognisable by comparison.

Diagnosing defeat

"Make no mistake the papers set the agenda. And today we have feeding frenzies. Savage as it sounds the Madeleine McCann story sold papers and previously there was Princess Diana. The World Cup is another first class example of a feeding frenzy that electrifies the newspapers."

Newspaper seller with Diana front page

What this frenzy is really about is fear of national decline, says the writer and broadcaster Toby Young: "In a sense it's people's anxiety about Britain's waning influence on the international stage. It expresses itself in their anxiety about how England will fare in the World Cup."

And that's why beating Germany has become so important.

"The chant 'two world wars and one world cup!' rings increasingly hollow each time we're beaten by a German team. It's the ability of the German team to punch above its weight in football terms. And that seems to us to reflect their ability to punch above their weight economically."

There is a political angle to all this with theorists on opposite sides of the ideological debate diagnosing defeat in different ways. "If you're on the left it's the players who are overpaid and selfish exhibiting the spirit of materialism introduced by Thatcher," he says. "If you're on the right it's because of a lack of confidence and self belief."

The loss to Germany has prompted much soul searching. So would the English be better off hiding the their flags next time around?

Young thinks not - believing that win or (mostly likely) lose, it's all for the good.

"In this age, here's something that for once genuinely brings us together as a country. And the anxiety about national decline would be there whether it's expressed in this way or not. You can describe it as hysterical if you like but I'd say it's cathartic."

The healthy side

Psychologist Dr Sandy Wolfson agrees. She has studied the behaviour and emotional lives of football fans and argues the World Cup is good for the mind.

BBC World Cup 2010

"The vast majority of fans get many psychological benefits. There's always going to be moments of depression and despondency when you lose. The key thing is its ability to get social interaction between people from all walks of life. You'll get a highly paid lawyer in the pub talking to a street cleaner. And football's a good way of getting people to think intellectually. You can also scream and shout in a socially acceptable way."

But aren't we all living in denial? "The optimism is healthy. And it's cyclical, you get the renewal of hope after defeat. I'm not denying your team lets you down and you're going to have a hard time. There will be a lot of people angry, upset and negative. But research shows that within a week you're thinking about the next event."

Surely there is one simple lesson we can learn from this predictable debacle. Whoever gets the poisoned chalice of being England manager in four years' time, could for once learn to manage expectations. When the inevitable question from the press pack arrives - "So can we win the World Cup this time?" the coach would reply: "Probably not. Let's see if we can get to the second round first shall we?"

Below is a selection of your comments.

Most of the expectations are media generated, journalists asking constantly if England can win. The expectations played out on the radio (5 Live is particularly bad for this), TV and paper is ridiculous. Most England supporters I know are pretty realistic knowing that we'll crash out. We would just like our team to play the way we occasionally see them play. The media do not always reflect the expectations but more create it for it to be burst. Following on from this, this is why in Scotland the Anyone But England get's support: the main criticism is the over-hype by all forms of news media (BBC included, sorry).
Duncan Smallman, Edinburgh

Sadly sport is the only area where the English are allowed any recognition by the British government. That's why it's important - because if it wasn't for sport the English would have no recognition whatsoever. It's all we've got. We have no parliament - and unlike Scotland, Wales and NI we've not been asked if we want one. The latest survey suggests 68% of the English do want their own parliament. We have been balkanised into regions without consultation or consent. We also get by far the least per person funding in the "UK" due to the Barnett Formula. Leading to the worst services in the "UK". Yes we're deluded that our football team might do well but increasingly we're angry that the only thing we get out of the "UK" is the bill. But the English are finally waking up to all this. Keep your flags flying folks. We are the English and we are about to speak.
Julian Asher, Birmingham, England

Dr Sandy Wolfson's comment "football's a good way of getting people to think intellectually" doesn't really stand up to examination. I haven't been following the world cup and couldn't care who wins in the end but from a non-fan's point of view the one thing England fans don't seem to do is think intellectually!
Gordon Johns, Bristol, UK

in mourning? Who can be in mourning? It was clear from match one what would happen. And, frankly, it's only football. If people hate the fact we always crash out of football championships, if all they really care about is the win, perhaps they should support sports we are more successful in... cricket, rugby (both), motor sport, athletics, swimming, cycling and so on...
Mark Burton, Aylesbury UK

The last paragraph of this article is just so unrealistic- do you really think that the fans or the media would accept anything other than absolute confidence. After all why should the coach open himself up to the barrage of recrimination that would come with seeming unambitious, unconfident and possessing of a negative mental attitude. Everyone know's that the chances of any team winning the world cup can be covered by "Probably not", but I for one do not want to hear that.
Mark, Stroud

I stopped being very interested in football back in the early eighties and the national teams performances since 1970 had a lot to do with that. I watched the game against Germany and thought "we've learnt nothing in all that time". We seemed to be playing a 0-8-2 formation for much of the game. The way in which German players were allowed to roam at will was a disgrace. I feel particularly sad for the supporters; they've made an effort (not least of all financially) to support their side, but have been sadly let down. Not because of the loss, but the manner of the loss.
John Connolly, Northampton

I'm sure most of the hysteria comes from the media, particularly the press. Prior to Sunday, I didn't hear anyone who thought we had an earthly chance of beating Germany never mind winning the tournament. I switched on BBC just prior to kick off and Lineker, Dixon, Hansen & Shearer all said they thought we were going to win. Based on what?!
Mark Swindell, Bolton, UK

I think that during these World cups each country hopes for the best results but sadly England goes overboard with naked nationalism. Obviously these tabloids thrive on that. They will invariably bring in 1966, the two world wars and questions like "who beat Germany in WWII? To enjoy football as a sport and not think of it like winning a war may help. But that could be wishful thinking !
Frank Marlow, Amsterdam, Netherlands

I'd hazard that the majority of people really do not care that much. The media like to stir up this particular brand of hysteria every two years (World Cups and the Euros) and claim that we're all heart-broken when we lose. In reality people watch, turn off and get back to their lives. The allegory with the Spanish bar could be repeated in many bars across England - I'm sure if the journalist had been in a "fan zone" in Spain he would have seen the same reaction as he would in England, but the people who choose to go to such places are inherently those who care too much.
Owen, Leeds, UK

Why do the media assume that we (the English football supporting public) expect to win. I did not have high expectations and nor did any of my friends and relatives. I believe you and others in the media have created a story about assumed expectation that does not exist. It seems to be the hyped up media that has all the expectation. We ordinary folk live in hope rather than expectation.
Rob S, Richmond, Surrey

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