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Nobody Does Dispiriting Wins Better Than England

Jude Bellingham of England celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA EURO 2024 group stage match between Serbia and England at Arena AufSchalke on June 16, 2024 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Kevin Voigt/GettyImages

In what can only be termed a huge victory for England in their first European Championship group stage match, they beat Serbia 1-0 in a game sufficiently incomplete to remind all English fans how much they hate manager Gareth Southgate.

It simply doesn't get any better, because nothing says sports like rooting for one's favorite team, and nothing makes that better than imagining oneself tactically, strategically, morally, ethically superior to the person in charge, and also sexier. If you're going to travel the delusional track, why not take it to the max?

The game was in fact a bit of a bore other than Jude Bellingham, who is already positioning himself as the new core of the English side. The vibrant midfielder with an eye for both the goal and the moments that lead to it scored the game's only goal in minute 13 off a deflected cross by Bukayo Saka, but therein lies the issue that allows the winning fan base to act like the losing one. It was "the only goal." England played an interesting first half but a desultory second, and the expectations of an opening-game rout for what the nation believes to be its best chance to win this competition for the first time ever fell into a heap. Bellingham was the obvious hero, demanding the ball, running the shop, behaving the way Southgate described him afterward: "He writes his own script."

But in that accomodation, Southgate was drilled for playing the Premier League's player of the year, Phil Foden, on the parlous left side of the formation and essentially diminishing his gifts, and moving natural goal scorer Harry Kane to a more reserved role that didn't place him at his best either. Serbia spent the second half in England's half doing everything but actually scoring, thus taking what for 15 minutes looked like cake for the English and turning it to porridge. And in keeping with English tradition, Southgate was pummeled for being too slow to react to the changing nature of the match, too inherently conservative to want to change, and for letting the Serbs take control of a match that wasn't theirs at the start, as English teams typically do.

Now we'd like to take you for a walk down We Know More Than You Boulevard, but that's not for us to say. That right belongs to those who have lived the narrative of making failure as appealing as victory and claiming that dichotomy as their birthright. It is very much the English way to wait for the rake to appear in the road so they can stamp on it and smack themselves with the handle. They have come to acknowledge Southgate's role in improving the team's profile while always leaving room to note that even in victory he doesn't win the right way for long enough. In short, he fails to meet expectations, and expectations is how we do this sports thing now. Sort of like setting a point spread, only with emotions and half-formed opinions. You know, just like Americans do.

And now that "scoreboard" has been replaced with "expected goals" as the new battle cry, the English still lose while winning and seem to enjoy both with equal vigor. Bellingham, already acting like he runs the firm, said as much in yesterday's postgamer: "I think commonly with the team there is a negative feeling around all our games, sometimes rightly so, but I think in this case you take the positives from maybe, OK, we had to hold on at times and suffer a little bit, but when you keep a clean sheet, all you have to do is score one goal to win a game."

Tactically unassailable, as one is always one more than zero. But Bellingham is still young and has not been alive long enough to understand that this is the real English game: to find the dry rot in the mansion. Or, since England hasn't really done enough internationally to merit a mansion, the refurbished condo. This is arguably the best English side in the Euro Championship era, with players like Bellingham, Foden, Kane, Saka, Declan Rice, and Jordan Pickford, who always looks like someone is trying to steal goods from his grocery cart. But the defense is not yet top-level firm, the left side of the attack is clearly much weaker than the right, and it is generally agreed by people paid to kvetch about England that yesterday's effort doesn't beat any of the other current European powers.

In other words, happy miserable days are here again. The English got their three points, but find solace in knowing that it could have been one. The glass isn't half-empty; it's full of spit put there by the owner, as nature intended.

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