Nation in a state

World cup: does England's footballing performance reflect the national condition? Lawrence Parker investigates

The support of a football team seemingly never involves the calculation that the players are prone, like the rest of us, to feeling social pressure. It is very rare that the outcome of a football match is seen as a social product. As a child I used to roll up to places such as Liverpool and Arsenal expecting struggling Aston Villa sides to pull off the miraculous. Only later, when I read about dressing-room feuds and teams not interested in playing for the manager, did I realise how naive my sense of hope was.

Such hope is not completely irrational in football. The sheer amount of variables (natural conditions, referees, the crowd, injuries and so on) means that shocks do take place and the mighty can take a tumble. But such exceptions only tend to prove the rule: football is generally one big, self-fulfilling prophecy. 'Good' teams usually beat the 'bad' ones, with this being increasingly underpinned by a club's place in the financial league table. Football supporters, though, still do not see it this way - the rule of capital, where money appears to produce money, is supremely effective in effacing its social origin.

Understanding all this gives us a different vantage point in understanding the 'plight' of the England team in the World Cup. I say 'plight' because the team has actually managed to progress to the quarter finals of the tournament, a position that would be looked upon as a great achievement by the majority of football-playing countries. However, a narrow, uninspiring win over Ecuador on June 25 has been the signal for yet another round of apprehension on behalf of supporters and the media.

It is true to say that the football served up by England thus far has been largely insipid. Events such as Beckham's wonderful free kick against Ecuador and Joe Cole's stunning volley in the match with Sweden have only served to illuminate the surrounding dross. England have played like a frightened team. In other words they have accurately reflected a suffocating sense of national anticipation.

Throughout the tournament, England have been surrounded by a swirl of anxiety: Wayne Rooney's injury, coach Sven-Goran Eriksson's dodgy substitutions, David Beckham's patchy form and so on. Of course, other national sides have to face up to life in the goldfish bowl, but this sense of angst is particularly marked in nations such as Britain (whose emotional core is English), where there is always the sense that we should be the best - a leftover from 'our' imperial past.

This backdrop only ratchets up the tension. The social base of this misery has also broadened. I watched the Sweden game in a pub in an expensive residential area in London. It is interesting to observe that the newer, more 'middle class' England supporters have absorbed the fatalism expressed by their proletarian counterparts ('How can they do this to us, Tarquin!').

The songs that England fans sing in Germany also express this fatalism. 'England till I die' and 'Self-preservation society' relate a sense of stoicism in the face of impending doom. Some of this national tension expresses itself in England's record of hooliganism (a group of around 500 were detained by the German authorities in Stuttgart last weekend). Still, at least we are good at something.

Is it any wonder then that the England football team have served up such stale fare on the pitch? Can we really expect the players not to be affected by this collective angst? If England do actually do the unthinkable and win the World Cup, it would rank as a great achievement, simply in terms of the amount of cultural obstacles the team would have had to surmount. But then, I am not that optimistic. I am an England supporter after all.

In relation to the Ashes last year, I remarked that the success of the England cricket team (and the public's reaction to it) was the outcome of a "schizophrenic tension between extreme mass anxiety "¦ and an almost casual short-termism" ('Raking the Ashes of English socialism', September 8 2005). England rode this tension to their advantage by playing a bold and exhilarating game. However, in retrospect, the English cricketers had a somewhat more benign set of circumstances. First, cricket is simply not the 'national game' in the way that football is and, particularly after England had capitulated in the first test at Lord's, nobody really expected them to win. Our football team are (or were) widely regarded (at least in the English media) as 'having the best chance to win the World Cup in years'.

It would be nice in the last couple of weeks if people stopped treating England games as some kind of magical environment where victory is merely the outcome of what goes on in the confines of 90 minutes on a football pitch. Desperate and anxiety-strewn cravings to win only really show off the fact that the majority of us really do not have that much to look forward to.

It would also be nice if we could concentrate on how the team is seeking to overcome its obstacles and appreciate how exciting it is to see Wayne Rooney fizzing into life after weeks of morbid pessimism as to his fitness. But then that might mean enjoying our football. God forbid.