England: The Great Passion Paradox

Gary Speed (R) the Wales manager and Fabio Capello (L) the England manager watch from the touchline during the UEFA EURO 2012 group G qualifying match between England and Wales at Wembley Stadium in London, England. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

It has become almost verboten to discuss England's failings in terms of the intangibles: passion, heart, desire. Yet these words, these ideas, lie at the heart of the halting national performances.

As is now traditional following any England game, there were complaints - not many, but more than none - about a certain specific failing on the part of the England team. Not their inability to take throw-ins short to an unmarked man; not their indelicacy of touch and witlessness of movement; not their persistent and endearing generosity in returning the ball to their opponents.

Their singing.

It is a precondition of the modern world, of course, that if people can't see you doing something then they will assume you aren't doing it, and then judge you for it. It was his refusal to cry over his mother's death that condemned Meursault; it is his refusal to run around like a buffoon that condemns Dimitar Berbatov. So it is with England's footballers: their lack of interest or investment in singing the anthem means that they quite clearly lack patriotism, passion, pride, and some other words that don't begin with "p" and so would spoil the sentence.

At root, this assumption - that the lack of any visual expression of an intangible, mental quality can and must be taken as evidence of absence; I can't see this person caring, therefore they don't care - is clearly and self-evidently nonsensical. The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but more than a few people invest in heavy curtains. If international football glory was causally or even correlatively linked to anthemic demonstration, Ivan Zamorano would be the most decorated player in history. Mesut Özil doesn't even attempt to sing the German anthem, preferring to whisper verses from the Qur'an, and such passionless perfidy didn't stop him bending England over his knee and thrashing them so damn hard that the lions limped all the way home from Gelsenkirchen.

But. If it is misguided to equate "passion" with "singing" - and it is - then it is concomitantly and equivalently misguided to dismiss passion on the same basis. Passion - along with "heart" and "commitment" and "drive" and "pride" and other such intangibles - has become something of a taboo in English footballing chitterchat, a signal that sets eyes rolling and eyebrows arching. Much of this is due to the cliché of the mouth-breathing In-Ger-Lund fan - like all clichés, it is birthed from truth - who only breaks away from beating his wife and drinking his lager to sing '10 German Bombers' and call the BBC demanding "more passion from the lads". But to allow such buffoonery to set the terms of reference for the debate is to abrogate responsibility for the debate, and so to lose any validity.

That this is due to a very English kind of disdain can be demonstrated. Jonathan Wilson, in issue #2 of The Blizzard, writes the following about Sergio Makarian's management of Paraguay: "he instilled the classic Uruguayan virtue [of] garra - a concept that literally means claw but incorporates mental strength, courage and streetwiseness". Now, substitute in any English coach you like and rework that sentence: "the classic English virtue of passion - a concept that literally means strong love but incorporates commitment, courage and a never-say-die attitude". You can almost hear the lips curling in disdain.

Just because somebody is very loud, and very insistent, and very scary, doesn't mean they get to decide what words mean. Passion doesn't mean singing loudly, just as it doesn't mean going into challenges with your studs flashing, kicking opposing playmakers up in the air, or screaming "farm off you melonfarming melonfarmer" at the referee. Passion means, as noted above, strong love. It is an overwhelming desire to act, and as such lies at the heart of all human actions beyond those necessary for survival and propagation. Why does anybody do anything that they don't have to? Because, on some level, they want the thing to be done, and they want to be the person to do it.

Footballers play football because they want to play football, whether that be for the sake of the game itself, the glory, the money, the WAGs ... whatever their poison. It was their passions that meant David Beckham and Siniša Mihajlović spent hour after hour bending free-kicks into tires as children. Passion that drove Paul McGrath on ruined knees into the waves of the Azzurri. Passion that pumped the ice through the veins of Zinedine Zidane, and passion (of a different, destructive, personal sort) that slammed his head into Marco Materazzi's startled breastbone. Wanting, feeling, desiring, needing: this is what drives people to do remarkable things. To succeed as a footballer, and as a football team, you really, massively, hugely, completely need to want to.

None of the above is intended to dismiss the analytic or tactical or "passionless" understandings of football; this isn't a blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of chalkboardistas, or a banner raised for the glory of the Old Frivolousness. It's about recognising that for a tactical plan to function at its optimum efficacy - Barcelona's, say - it is a prerequisite that all the component parts - that's Xavi, Messi, and the rest - are functioning at their optimum capacity, and that is as much a question of psychology as it is of physiology and planning.

José Mourinho - unequivocally a hero - is a perfect example of the necessary synthesis between the dispassionate and the passionate. He is tactically innovative, sly, astute, and frequently filthy. He also has the happy knack of impressing his personality so profoundly on a squad of footballers that they are willing to compromise their own egos and personalities to that of the team. Samuel Eto'o has never looked so happy playing on the wing, while Materazzi sobbed like a child when he left.

Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough, Pep Guardiola, even Arsène Wenger, in his own peculiarly brittle way, have that ability: to harness and direct the multifarious and often incoherent passions of the men they lead. Rafa Benítez, by contrast, will never be able to do the same, however profound his tactical nous and however rigorously drilled his zonal marking. A footballer that doesn't want to play is worthless; a footballer without the desire to win is useless. A footballer without passion is like a plane without fuel or an angel without wings: a miracle of engineering, a divinely invested creature, totally unable to get off the ground.

Of course, the suggestion that passion can overcome technical deficiencies is a completely different percolator of fish. Football is never just about who wants it more, just as it is never just about who is technically superior (Wimbledon, 1988), or best prepared (Denmark, 1992), or most expensive (Real Madrid, most of the last couple of decades), or strongest, or quickest, or most tactically innovative, or any other variable you like. They all matter. Football management is the art of maximising those variables you have in abundance while minimising those you don't. England, blessed land of nine-year-old children playing - to win! - on full-size pitches, will in most circumstances concede a technical deficit to other nations of similar ambition, with their irritatingly foreign-yet-effective focus on ball-skills, passing, and close control. Passion can't bridge that gap conclusively, but it can act as part of a successful strategy to overcome the deficit. You can't draw it on a chalkboard, but you can rouse it, you can harness it, and you can use it.

Because that's what lies at the heart of the complaints that the England team aren't singing loudly enough: the knowledge that England aren't playing well enough. (Although there is almost certainly a retired colonel somewhere near Tunbridge Wells demanding the prosecution of Christopher Smalling for treason on the grounds of quietness alone. This is England, after all.) As Callum Hamilton of this parish has noted elsewhere, for a team so often associated with the glorification of reductive intangibles, "it's difficult to think of a more mentally weak national side". After the win against Wales, Fabio Capello noted that he knew England would struggle after watching his players in the warm-up: heads down, shoulders hunched, gazes furtive.

The next time England stutter or stumble, and somebody calls 6-0-6 to ask "where's the passion, lads?", they might well be a knuckle-dragging cretin on day release. They might well think libero is an Italian airline, and inverted winger a kind of sanitary towel. But they might also have a very good point. Wanting something isn't usually enough to get it, but not wanting it is no use at all.

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