I am an England fan and I hate myself. Gosh, that sounds rather dramatic, doesn't it? And wholly unsuited to an article about the Gold Cup final, to boot, because it's the United States vs. Mexico, neither of whom I have any particular rooting interest in. The truth of the matter is that I don't really hate myself. Or other England fans. Or Rob Green*. Or anyone, really. What I do hate, and what I'm here to warn you about, is how England fans think. Because, believe it or not, the US is falling into the same trap that's messily devoured the psyche of more or less every supporter of the Three Lions who's ever lived.
*Ok, maybe a little.
If you're an England fan, you live most of your England-fan life in a constant struggle between brain and heart. Your brain will remind you of years of dismal failure, of flat performances after soaring expectations and of Gareth Southgate missing that ****ing penalty when you were ten. Your heart, on the other hand, will stir into action and, fueled by a media frenzy around the country, will insist that this is the time that England make up for those poor performances. And then they don't. England fans know our team isn't good - just ask one. But we can and will forget that the second a major tournament approaches. Over and over again this happens. We are, for want of a better term, heartwashed.
The United States, of course, is in a very different position to England. Emerging from a soccer backwater to a notable power means that the die-hard, long-term fans have seen their team suddenly turn into something perilously approximating competent before their very eyes, with legitimately talented outfield players such as Clint Dempsey and Stu Holden following up the first generation of American exports. The US team is becoming good, and that's a great thing for the popularity of soccer in the country.
If success breeds popularity, one way of increasing popularity is to manufacture said success in advance. The pre-tournament hyping of the US national team in last year's World Cup, for example, was unbelievable. Second place in the group was supposed to be a cakewalk. Even once the group stages were successfully navigated (more on that in a minute), Ghana weren't given nearly the respect they deserved from a US press corps drunk on that exhilarating last-gasp goal by Landon Donovan.
The thrill of a last-sixteen finish ended up masking the fact that there were long stretches of the World Cup in which team USA didn't actually do anything, with Donovan's goal rescuing them from what would have been an embarrassing group stage exit. They may have lived up to the hype in terms of finishing position, but it was very clear that there were several issues with the team that desperately needed fixing. Most of these have been ignored, and now the hype machine is turning its wheels once more as the USA prepare to face off against Mexico.
If you tell someone something that they want to believe often enough, they will believe it, no matter whether it's true or not. We want to believe that whoever we root for is a good team, and we're told by respectable people that indeed it is, and over time, that idea becomes embedded in our soul. It is truth, and we have been heartwashed. So it is with England, and so it is becoming with the USA.
This is all facilitated by a particularly Anglo-American coping mechanism in sport (and indeed, life). Realistically, when a team loses, most of the time it's because they weren't as talented or as lucky as the opposition. That is how sports work. Some players are better than other players at soccer. If they weren't, watching would be a fundamentally pointless act, akin to watching a computer play itself at pong. It's curious, therefore, that the English speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic tend to use effort, or a lack thereof, as their excuse of choice when a match is lost.
This mentality is dangerous. It's dangerous because it provides a catch-all excuse for failure that cannot be falsified, and that leads neatly into feeding the hype machine. Outplayed by Ghana? It's ok - you just need to show more spirit on the field next time, tiger. Demolished by Germany? Well, it's because you didn't give 110 percent. You'll get 'em later, son. It's also so pervasive that even the players buy into it, retroactively deciding that they tried particularly hard in a win or slacked off in a loss (when, judging by how often the losing team has to run, the opposite is more likely to be true).
By dumping everything into the effort bucket, we essentially deny ourselves the chance to either properly evaluate our teams or learn from their mistakes. The history of England since 1966 is the same ten-year cycle, repeated time after time after time, and it's precisely because the vast majority of the population - certainly including the FA and the press - is pathologically incapable of understanding the true ability of the team.
That, of course, has a major effect development and allows the hype to play out year in year out, giving England fans a surreal sense of entitlement despite being demonstrably worse than every major traditional footballing power except those in Eastern Europe (who've had their own problems). Being unable to see how games are actually won and lost is turning England into a laughingstock and their fans into self-loathing lunatics. For America, failing to learn one's lessons could be the dfference between fielding a genuine World Cup contender for the first time in 2030 or in 2060.
Bob Bradley et al. have an important game coming up on Saturday. Mexico are an intense rival, and it's always a great thing to get one over them. Unfortunately, despite the demolition job Honduras attempted on them on Wednesday, they're also quite probably the better side. That's not to say the US have no chance of winning - play the match one hundred times, and the US would lift the trophy in at least forty of them - but, on paper, they simply aren't as good as their opponents. They are underdogs.
If a moment of magic does come again, it won't be because Michael Bradley wanted the ball more than Gerardo Torrado. And if it doesn't, and Mexico win, it won't be because the United States mens' national team didn't leave behind absolutely everything they had on the pitch. Soccer, like all sports, is a game of talent, preparation, and a healthy degree of luck. That these are athletes who've dedicated their whole lives to playing at the top level precludes an effort levels being the prime cause of anything.
All of which is to say that it's far better to understand the whys and the hows of victory and defeat than to praise or lament a team's effort only to buy into rejuvenated hype the next time around. England are so far down that path that we're essentially lost to the rest of the world, who tend to look at us like a much-loved but embarrassingly senile elderly relative. But there's still time for the USA. Don't follow our lead. You'll be very grateful you didn't