You didn’t really believe it was going to happen, did you? Following yet another tournament exit at the very first stage of the knock-outs, this England team achieved its standard, more historically accurate aim of a somewhat awkward glorious exit. Backs to the wall, fighting to the last man, it appeared and indeed sounded an all too familiar English tale.
There is of course something to be said for the stubborn, almost futile, resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. It appeals to our sense of boyish adventure. We British like to look back on the likes of Dunkirk, Rorkes Drift or Captain Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole with a nostalgic eye that all too often has been diverted away from the very reasons why such a last ditch, final stand was necessary in the first instance. Often it is because we have been found wanting immediately beforehand.
Take Rorkes Drift for example, glorified in the film Zulu. The garrison of 150 men defending their base against a sustained attack by up to 4,000 Zulu Warriors. Yet the preceding battle, the Battle of Isandlwana, a crushing defeat leaving 1300 dead, the worst in the British Army history against a technological inferior force, was quickly glossed over by the establishment back in Britain by the sterling defence of Rorkes Drift, a battle that earned its defenders an unprecedented eleven Victoria Crosses. The public had barely the time to digest the news of Isandlwana before the glory of Rorkes Drift broke and made heroes out of the British Army once more. Perceived glorious failure or near failure comes a close second to overall success in the public conscious.
Taking an admittedly gifted, but in no way vintage Italian team, all the way to penalties has been portrayed as something to be proud of. Roy Hodgson commented, “There were some heroic performances not only tonight but also in the previous three games…maybe it’s just fated at the moment that we don’t win on penalties.” It is true that the England team did work exceptionally hard to try and keep the Italians at bay but were more often than not left chasing shadows brought about by the colossal error by the manager in choosing to play with two strikers and leave the midfield two of Gerrard and Parker at the mercy of a narrow diamond of an Italian midfield consisting of four typically central midfielders including the imperious Andrea Pirlo who rarely must have enjoyed the freedom he was given to roam and dictate the game from a deep-lying position. By the end of the first-half, the pattern of the game was set and England’s manager was found wanting.
England’s great hope, Wayne Rooney, was a peripheral figure, detached from the play and carrying a look as though he knew that once more his contribution to a major tournament was proving to be negligible. He proved unwilling to close down Pirlo or perhaps, even more damningly for Hodgson, looked as though he did not possess the fitness to carry out this task. His forward partners, first Danny Welbeck who toiled for an hour to find space to provide an outlet, was withdrawn and replaced by Andy Carroll which only served to confirm that England were prepared to concede possession of the football to Italy and revert to a route-one way of playing. Carroll persevered, a sad lonely figure in the Italian half, but his colleagues were by now entrenched in their own half, no longer believing they had it within them to counter-punch the constant Italian jab.