There will be ‘a real carnival atmosphere’ in South Africa this June; you can guarantee commentators and pundits will describe it thus. And yet for England matches something threatens this perennial World Cup cliché. No, not those infernal horns that so blighted our enjoyment of the African Cup of Nations in January. Booing.
With Messrs Terry and Cole already set to attract abuse from large sections of the travelling support, Jamie Carragher has become the latest player to incur the wrath of the country’s faithful. His surprise inclusion in Fabio Capello’s provisional 30-man squad has proved unpopular in some quarters. Many do not think he is good enough to represent his country, while others believe he should not even be given the opportunity having turned his back on the Three Lions in 2007.
Capello himself fears the fans will focus on the perceived cowardice with which he retired from international football, ignoring the courage the Merseysider has shown in going back on his declaration of retirement to serve his country once again.
“I hope they won't boo him,” said the Italian in a statement unlikely to placate the England faithful.
Ticket to deride
“During the World Cup I want the fans to help us,” continued the England manager.
But having travelled half-way around the world, supporters will perhaps feel they have earned the right to boo whoever the hell they like. Leaving aside any stereotypes of Brits abroad, most fans will have shelled out thousands of pounds for the privilege of watching England at the World Cup, and you can understand their frustration if the players do not perform.
What is unforgiveable however, is some supporters’ refusal to give players the chance they deserve. Owen Hargreaves was vilified for his early international performances, but by the 2006 World Cup he had become England’s best player. In the past both Peter Crouch and Emile Heskey have been booed onto the pitch, yet now they find themselves at the head of the queue to partner Rooney in attack.
A rise in disaffection
This season has seen both John Terry and Ashley Cole suffer a torrent of abuse from the sidelines in the face of revelations concerning their private lives. Steven Gerrard has been routinely booed following his close-season brush with the law, while Frank Lampard still receives a rough reception from those who have not forgiven him for his below-par performances at the last World Cup.
United duo Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney seem to have been forgiven for their previous indiscretions with regard to the national team, but it still seems that this is the most hated England first eleven in history. Why?
Club before country
The predominance of so-called glory support certainly does not help matters. With the majority of England fans pledging allegiance to the Premier League elite, feelings of resentment towards those players of Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool -who represent the majority of the England first-team squad- are widespread.
Carragher’s initial retirement from international football is indicative of the growing importance of the game at club level. Ask most fans and they will tell you that domestic achievements mean more to them than international success.
Alex Ferguson, who has had to comfort several national scapegoats at Old Trafford over the years, believes the rising popularity of reality television is to blame. Over the last few years the media have instilled a culture of criticism and our footballers have felt the full force of it.
Talk of the tabloids
This is all part of a bigger question about whether it is right for the media to undermine the England football team. We have seen this week with the Triesman affair how a newspaper sting operation has caused irrevocable damage to England's 2018 bid, and it seems the press are always on hand to whip up negative feeling towards our players.
“Fans are rather fed up with a press which is out to gun our captain, our manager and now the chairman of the FA,” said Mark Perryman, England fans’ group spokesman this week.
Of course the likes of Terry and Cole can’t expect their extra-marital shenanigans to be swept under the rug simply because it’s a World Cup year, but the media do overstep the mark when they consistently blur the boundaries between performance on the pitch and private life. A quick flick through the tabloids and you’d be forgiven for thinking that footballers are celebrities first and sportsmen second. Even with purely footballing matters, the tabloid approach to England coverage can be particularly destructive. Do they really need to devote an entire column to players’ marks out of ten after every single international fixture?
Nevertheless we do our players a disservice. John Terry and Jamie Carragher have both played at the highest level for over a decade. They don’t read the papers (or at least they claim not to) and by now they have learnt to phase out the reaction of the fans. Do we still think it will affect their game if a few hundred people in the stands sound their displeasure?
Ultimately however the supporters do still need to get behind their team, if only for a sense of unity. If the England supporters aren’t all pulling in the same direction, then they are no better than the media they criticise. Let’s hope England fans leave their player prejudices at home this summer. And those bloody horns...