At Euro 2020, The Weight of Expectation Returns for England

As with the European Union, the Royal Family and its own history, the relationship the English public has with its national football team is complicated. One week, the team can be lauded as heroes. The next, the players are vilified as overpaid prima donnas. The England manager’s job is often called a “poisoned chalice”, and with good reason – ten different men have held the post since 2000. The role tends to end careers rather than be the start of a glittering ascendancy.

We don’t have the column space to go through all of the recent history of the England national team. But most experts agree that ‘modern’ English football was born after the 1990 World Cup. This, coupled with the launch of the Premier League in 1992, launched the birth of the celebrity footballer, complete with the complex relationship that brings with the media, fans and public.

By the turn of the century, there was an obsession with England’s quests for success at major tournaments. The hype of the team around the 2000s, which was most exemplified by the pressure put on David Beckham, was amplified by the tabloid press. The term most associated with the era was “England expects”, an assertion that the nation expected the team to deliver. It did not.

The Golden Generation Failed

The Golden Generation of the early 2000s largely failed at World Cup and European Championships. Sometimes the exit was unlucky, and other times the team was simply not good enough. The team would be built up pre-tournament by the tabloid press, then torn down after when not delivering the success the public craved.

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As we reached the 2010s, England’s struggles became more ignominious. The exit to Iceland at Euro 2016 was seen as the last straw – the ultimate embarrassment. There was a tonal shift in the press, as if the media had finally had enough. The appointment of Gareth Southgate as manager seemed apt for a team that had a subdued relationship with the public.

And then, World Cup 2018 took place in Russia. Beforehand, there was none of the chest-thumping in the media that usually preceded a major tournament. The pressure was off Southgate and the players, and they duly delivered a first Semi-Final at the World Cup since 1990. More importantly, the team played in a manner that caught the imagination of the public. The mantra for the summer of 2018 was “football’s coming home (again)”.

On reflection, however, the press erred in 2018 by creating the impression that England should be considered underdogs. Yes, recent results at major tournaments were poor. But Southgate had many great players at his disposal – players who gelled well together. And, as we approach the beginning of Euro 2020 (it is technically Euro 2021 after being postponed, but has retained 2020 for sponsorship reasons), it’s become apparent that the England squad is arguably better than it has been for generations.

England Expected to Deliver at Euro 2020

If you look at the today prediction for upcoming England games at Euro 2020, there is a confidence that they will succeed in each match. The team is considered the favourite by some bookmakers, particularly as Wembley Stadium offers home advantage in the Semi-Finals and Final. The underdog complex is gone, and that has been picked up by the media and the fans.

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But being the favourite brings new pressures, and it will be a completely different kind of test for Southgate and the team than the 2018 World Cup. Then, there was a sense that anything good happening is a bonus. Now, the spectre of failure might haunt the team. England expects once more.

The good news is that this team is arguably superior to the golden generation of the 2000s. The bad news is that the team is young and perhaps requires more time to blossom. Maybe the World Cup in 2022 or 2026 is a more realistic goal. However, the press plays a key role. If it puts too much pressure on these young players, any failure this month at Euro 2020 could be exacerbated. But if the team gets the support – even if they don’t deliver – then it could point to a bright future.

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