It is a near-universal truth of the English sporting summer: whatever the sport and however England are doing, someone else must be doing things not quite right.
This tends to emerge first in the weirder corners of the press, but it seeps out into the world from there, so that even purportedly sensible people wind up pondering it.
Which is why your correspondent, a good and faithful disciple of the British press, took to the stands in Lyon last night wondering just how the United States’ all-consuming problem of “arrogance” might manifest on the pitch. It had to be true. It was in the Daily Mail and everything.
And then, nothing. Not a smidge. Just lots and lots of brilliant football, a few shredded nerves, and the eventual triumph of an exceptional team over a merely really good one.
It’s a funny thing, arrogance. It’s as much a question of perception as intention, which means that if you go looking for it, then suddenly it’s everywhere.
Here come the United States of Arrogance, arrogantly smashing 13 past Thailand, arrogantly celebrating each one as if it were the greatest and most important goal ever scored, with their fans, arrogant in their volume, their numbers, their thousand iterations of the stars and stripes, arrogantly proclaiming their arrogant belief that they will win, their players arrogantly standing up to presidents (is this right? that seems okay), and their support staff arrogantly scouting hotels (wait, what?), and ...
We do not recommend you actually try seeking evidence of arrogance. At least not for very long. It is exhausting: You start to feel like like you live in the same world as the very worst men on television, and that is not a pleasant place to be.
Of course, it’s particularly easy to do this with US sport teams, bearing as they do the flag of the world’s preeminent superpower. The stars and stripes is a heavy, freighted symbol, and it is not often used to convey the message, “Hey, Megan Rapinoe’s pretty great.” Quite frankly, it would be a surprise if a few of the USWNT squad members aren’t just a little arrogant. They’re all humans; they’re all exceptionally good at what they do. Comes with the territory.
Yet even with this in mind, the mutability of these allegations of arrogance reveals them for what they are: a mild and mostly harmless form of conspiratorial thinking. Arrogance becomes the secret force that animates everything that a large and powerful sporting nation does that you, personally, don’t particularly care for. You can find it in all the big nations, and at times you might be right. You can even — whisper it — find it in England.
(How arrogant of Phil Neville not to think of the difficulties the USA might have faced had they left finding a hotel until after the semi-final. Has he no respect for the logistical complexities of the leisure industry?)
And when it comes to the USWNT, there is a bigger problem than the plasticity of allegations of arrogance. Even if the players are, as people, the rampaging egomaniacs of the fevered English imagination, this USA team simply do not play arrogant football. They play the precise, exact opposite.
When arrogant football teams fail, they do so because they come to accept the fundamental fact of their own superiority; foundations become presumptions, which then collapse under pressure. And the USWNT are ... not that.
Throughout the first half, as the red shirts swarmed up to smother England’s attempts to play out from the back, they seemed to be powered by a kind of aggressive humility, if that makes any sense. An almost frantic desire not to let anything rest on assumption. Alex Morgan may have drank her tea, but she sure as hell earned it first. They all did. Every player looked possessed by the thought that if they were going to lose, then it sure as hell wasn’t going to be for a lack of anything on their part.
Ultimately, there is disjuncture between the idea of this USA team as arrogant, contemptuous, or dismissive, and the keen application of its players on the pitch. The former is as true as you want it to be; after all, you don’t have to like them. The latter, however, shows that hubris cannot be prescribed from the outside or be conjured into being by the opposition. You can’t force it across the gap: it comes from within, or it doesn’t come at all. And the United States appear utterly determined to keep it at bay.