English Soccer Fans Seek Return to Glory Days

For 40 years, English soccer teams have gone down to defeat in the World Cup. There is hope that England — where the game was invented — may finally have players skilled enough to win its first trophy since 1966.

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Team USA plays its first World Cup match today against the Czech Republic. People all over the world are cheering for their national teams. But there may be no county as desperate to win this year as England. The English invented the game but haven't won the cup since 1966.

A lot has changed in England since then. But as NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London, there's also a lot that has not change.

ROD GIFFORD reporting:

The manager of the Liverpool soccer club, Bill Shankley, once said that he disagreed with people who thought football, soccer, was a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that, he said. Every four years it seems as though the whole population of England sets out to prove they agree with Bill Shankley. Hours of airtime and miles of column inches are devoted to the minutest detail of team information. It's also a time for a lot of English musicians who should know better to record special World Cup songs to support the boys in white.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singers: England (unintelligible) Beckham scores the penalty.

GIFFORD: In this carnival atmosphere there is some deeper analysis going on about what the national obsession all means. In recent years, a growing point of discussion has been the English flag. In 1966, it was the Union Jack of the United Kingdom that was displayed everywhere. But now it's a red cross on a white background, the English cross of St. George.

David Goblatt(ph) is the author of forthcoming history of football called The Ball is Round. He says it's all part of ongoing redefinition of Englishness.

Mr. DAVID GOBLATT (Author): The Royal family is British. The armed forces are British. The legal system is England and Wales. The Church of England is English. But in a disenchanted and increasingly secular society, that's not something on which you can found 21st century nationalism.

We have the English National Opera, but that's not really taking us anywhere. What we do have above all else is the English national football team.

SCHAPER: Harvey's Wine Bar in the Southern city of Folkston on Saturday exploded with joy as England scored within the first five minutes against Paraguay and held on to win one to nothing. Fans Alex Scott Phillips and his friend Tracy Barnes say it really is football more than the Queen, more than the former empire or anything at all you can think of that brings English people together.

Mr. ALEX SCOTT PHILLIPS: The football and the national team have taken up -have filled a hole for the people to support.

Ms. TRACY BARNES: Religion, war, royalty, everyone should forget about those things now, and football, big games, big money, big players...

Mr. PHILLIPS: It's a new religion.

Ms. BARNES: I think so, yes.

SCHAPER: If it is the new religion, the believers are a world away from the crowds of 1966. One of the problems has been that the sport was hijacked along the way in the 1980s by hooligans. The red cross of St. George itself has become a symbol of the skinheads on the far political right.

But that, says David Goblatt, is now changing too.

Mr. GOBLATT: There is an enduring belief in this country that notions of nationalism and the flag are basically possessed by the Right, and that nationalism is overwhelmingly connected or irretrievably connected to xenophobia, to racism, to the legacy of a kind of aggressive imperialism. I think one of the exciting things and one of the challenges that sort of, you know, English culture faces is to refashion its notion of English as multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural.

SCHAPER: Perhaps soccer, football, is a part of doing just that. The English soccer team, completely white in 1966, is now a mixture of players from all ethnic backgrounds. But if that's changing, there is one thing that remains the same, and that's the taunting of the Germans.

(Soundbite of TV show "Fawlty Towers")

SCHAPER: There are endless reruns of the famous sketch where John Cleese as hapless hotel owner Basil Fawlty gets into an argument with some German guests.

(Soundbite of "Fawlty Towers")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As German Guest) Will you stop talking about the war.

Mr. JOHN CLEESE (Actor): (As Basil Fawlty) Me? You started it.

Unidentified Man: We did not start it.

Mr. CLEESE: Yes, you did. You invaded Poland.

SCHAPER: It's partly jealousy, wrote one commentator. The English just can't get over the fact that the people they beat in the war ended up richer, bigger and smarter than them, and, he might have added, better at football. Perhaps what that transformation of modern England needs more than anything is to beat the Germans this year and bring home the World Cup.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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