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In Good Conscience

Failure a yardstick for England fans after spate of exits

For far too many nights, Euro 2016 has been the dullest bore of any major tournament we might remember.

It was designed that way. The organisers, in this case Michel Platini and Gianni Infantino at Uefa, thought they could put money and nation-building over and above everything that the logic, the physical capacity, or the number of countries worthy of being at the "Finals" could deliver.

Aha, I hear some of you say: An Englishman with the head of a sore bear because his team flopped.

No, actually. We are quite accustomed to failure.

England are, right now, out of Euro 2016 and we managed it in far quicker time than it will take Britain to negotiate its way out of the European Union.

If this writer wished to try to analyse or to reason how we came to be overrun by Iceland, it would be an all too familiar script.

We, after all, have the Premier League, the best on planet earth. Whisper it, but seven out of 10 of the stars and all but three of the managers of that league are foreigners.

The football team fell because (again) England underestimated a minnow, and what magnificent, thoroughly deserving victors Iceland were.

But we Brits are all Welshmen now, or at least we were until late last night when Wales were still in it against Belgium.

Did I ever tell you how my ancestry can be traced to Wales? Another time, maybe.

For now, let it be said that some of us do know that the English are masters of ignorance and hubris and delusion. We gave the world this game, and apart from 1966, have seldom had cause to declare ourselves the champions of very much at all.

So, if this writer wished to try to analyse or to reason how we came to be overrun by Iceland, it would be an all too familiar script.

We, after all, have the Premier League, the best on planet earth. Whisper it, but seven out of 10 of the stars and all but three of the managers of that league are foreigners.

Some in England didn't like it, indeed the Brexit vote came about because many, many in the country were persuaded that there are too many immigrants taking jobs and overburdening the National Health Service.

Close the door to European freedom of movement and Britain will be great again?

That dangerous xenophobic rhetoric has already been exposed as political posturing, by people who never had a plan on how to make the exit work.

The football analogy is not so very different. It is easy to sell global TV rights for a league of 20 clubs which, heaven help us, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has just deigned to join.

Would that be the same Zlatan who, at 34, has already left Euro 2016 without leaving any real trace of his being there?

The same Ibrahimovic who left Paris St Germain, who enjoy special status in a French league that is the opposite to the competitive structure that makes the EPL what it is?

Well, if Ibrahimovic and Manchester United's new coach Jose Mourinho made it work for them at Inter Milan seven years ago, why shouldn't it be transferable to Old Trafford?

Maybe it will, for a short time. Maybe Ibra has enough stardust left to sprinkle over United, and to put the devil back into the Red Devils. It will be box office, if nothing else.

But as I said, we saw precious little of Ibrahimovic at Euro 2016.

Likewise, we have seen little of Cristiano Ronaldo, apart from the 12 minutes against Hungary when he scored with a cunning back-flick and then a soaring header.

But Ronaldo is still there, Portugal have reached the semi-finals without winning a single game in the normal 90 minutes. That's evidently because Hungry and Iceland, and also Austria and Poland, couldn't win or lose against them either.

And to my surprise, Portugal brought the same stalemate to Croatia, a team that did seem to be going places.

Nil-nil after 90 minutes, still nil-nil with three minutes of extra time remaining, and then Portugal's substitute Ricardo Quaresma popped in a goal.

And when Quaresma (who doesn't start because he's 32, a little bit older than Ronaldo) claimed he had the whole of Portugal in his hands when he took the final penalty kick against Poland, I wanted to ask: What about Renato Sanches?

He, after all, is the future, for both Portugal and Bayern Munich. He's 18, and when he finally got to start against Poland, this explosive, sturdy, dreadlocked young man scored Portugal's only goal of the night. He also scored in the penalty shoot-out when, presumably, he had the whole of Portugal in his hands.

And, yes, that made one wonder about England. It is too late now, but why on earth would Dear Old Blighty take Rashford to the tournament and then not give him anything other than cameo roles, too late to turn the course of events, for example, against Iceland?

The manager, Roy Hodgson, would not entertain questions in his resignation speech. Presumably he selected Rashford because, at every level from Manchester United to the England side, he had demonstrated that age to him was immaterial.

Rashford, 18 like Sanches, just doesn't think of reputations or burdens. He plays, and puts that round thing into the net, often with grace and usually while older opponents hesitate.

Too late, Hodgson wanted to protect him. He put Rashford into the attack with four minutes of the game remaining. Rashford, the one English player who looked like running at, and running beyond, massed defences like Iceland, simply did not get enough time.

In the 50 years since England won the World Cup, the country has led us up the emotional hill of great expectation so many times we are inured to it. Up that hill, and falling off the other side.

So, thank you, it doesn't hurt any more.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Failure a yardstick for England fans after spate of exits'. Print Edition | Subscribe