Christopher Morris’ brilliant 1997 news satire progam, Brasseye, features an episode on “Science.” In it, Morris manages to convince a long list of b-list British celebrities to become spokespersons for the “squashed” people of “Upuveli,” suffering from the effects of “heavy electricity.” Each washed-up celeb reads out the same ridiculous metaphor for the bogus weather phenomena: “a ton of invisible lead soup.”
That metaphor seems apt for what is now the archetypal England performance at international tournaments. A solid qualification campaign under a tactically-adept continental manager convinces the country the lead soup has gone for good, but then comes one of the worst World Cup draws in living memory against Algeria and the Premier League’s “finest” are suddenly covered in it.
The same lead soup drenches the English media. Devoid of convincing explanations for why England are terrible, journalists are left with two options: snark, or cliche. If you want some of the former, the Guardian is likely your first stop, although little is said there that hasn’t been expressed more succinctly in pithy tabloid headlines.
For the latter, well, cliche abounds, everywhere. England’s stars are a needy bunch, unable to deal with the pressure of “wearing the shirt,” they’re overpaid sissy celebrities, the manager is too disciplined, he’s not as disciplined as we first thought, England players aren’t as educated in the rudiments of passing and dribbling as commonly believed (including by Premier League managers), the national program is light-years behind the rest of Western Europe (who, save for the Dutch, are all going through manic World Cup death throes at the moment), they believed their own hype (even though all the over-expectant hype generated prior to this tournament came from one tabloid).
I’m sure there are countless more I’m missing (the opening negative commentary samples from Baddiel and Skinner’s “Three Lions” is as relevant now as it ever was). Meanwhile, the rest of the world tweets in “hahahahah!”, or asks, understandably, “who cares”? Easy enough for them, but others are cursed with an involvement with this team (as I have to now admit), and so have to face the question: is there any escape from the canned wailing from the press box?
Well, as a matter of fact, yes. After the exhaustion of reading through all the rhetorical questions posed by a bewildered English press, reading Zonal Marking’s succinctly accurate assessment of Friday’s banality put the game into a sort of serene context. This was one of the few places to read about why England were dreadful without the all-or-nothing extrapolations. Players drifting irresponsibly out of position, wayward unforced passes, flat movement from the midfield. Of course, the mind races to fill in the blanks—”England can’t deal with the pressure of international competition! The Premier League smash-and-grab disguises the many technical flaws of the England players!”—but at least the reader is left on his or her own to fill them.
Sites like Zonal Marking won’t ever tell us where this ton of invisible lead soup is coming from, but at least they let us peer under it to assess the damage. Their almost banal take on the Spanish “apocalypse” the other day—”for all their possession, Spain didn’t create that many goalscoring opportunities”—was marked by the absence of force-fed speculation that Spain’s World Cup curse has returned, or the old canard about Real players hating Barca players. In other words, the game itself, and nothing but. That’s all we can essentially know of football teams (outside of the tabloid sideshow), and Zonal Marking succeeds because it sticks to Wittgenstein’s simple formula—”whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”