Today I read that Anders Svensson of Sweden believes that English arrogance explains their past poor record against Sweden. It is true that in past tournaments England have been under huge pressure of expectation. Year after year the national team is branded the “golden” generation bigged up by the tabloids and broadsheets alike. “We can win” scream the newspaper headlines as dregs of our imperial past return to haunt us.
It is this expectation that has created huge and unreasonable pressure on the teams of young millionaires we send to represent our national aspirations. They take to the field pumped up with anger, adrenaline and fear of losing both for themselves and for the country. But hey – it’s only football.
Yet it has been so much more than that. So this time round let’s breathe a sigh of relief. For once there is no big star in the team – at least while Rooney is out. There is to some degree a level playing field and we have a quiet leader in Steven Gerrard who is not known – with one notable exception – for his antics off the pitch.
Arguably his leadership at the World Cup was undermined because he knew himself to be a replacement for Rio, not with the full confidence of the manager. This time he is the first choice and maybe this will help him in his role.
What is more, the manager is not a big name with big expectations. Roy Hodgson is in many ways the quiet man of English football. Yes he is an English manager too. He is not the Swedish superstar we saw in Sven. He is not the angry Italian we saw in Capello pacing the touchline red in the face and brandishing his fists. He appears quiet, modest and gets on with the job.
Thus we have a team and a manager probably more in the real world than at any time since 1966. We wish them well but have no unrealistic expectation for them. In a way I welcomed the draw with France. It is a good result and I cannot help thinking that a win would have landed the nation – and the team – back in the pool of unrealistic expectation.
When we set the bar too high there is a physical effect. We become tense and rigid. Our muscles contract and are less able to respond to our wishes. With lower expectation we can form our muscles so they are firm but fluid rather than overcharged and going past the adrenaline threshold at which our performance decreases.
Moderate emotional arousal allows us to perform at our peak, to use our muscles with firmness and fluidity rather than be hijacked by anticipation and excess expectation.
Moderate expectation means we do not become rigid from stress and sabotage ourselves on the field of play. England may not win but I believe they can do well as long as we don’t put pressure on them to be the best.
Paradoxically this is their best chance.