As England failed to qualify for the 2008 European football championship (Euro 2008) with a loss to Croatia last night, it raises the question of whether similar conditions surrounding two teams in different sports can lead to the same kind of results. Specifically, the Toronto Maple Leafs and England's national squad.
There are many similarities between the two teams' histories, fan bases, management, media coverage and lack of success in the recent past.
The last time England won the FIFA World Cup was July 30th 1966, as they beat West Germany 4-2 in the final. Less than a year later the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1967. Neither team has claimed the top prize since. The attention, hype, drama and failure that have dogged the Leafs and the English squad have similar qualities and perhaps can explain to some degree the elusive nature of again hoisting one of the most important trophies in both sports.
Both teams play in proximity to the birthplace of their respective sports. The tradition and love of the game for fans of both teams results in a constant demand for information about their team and players. The media circus surrounding both teams continues throughout the year and raises the profiles of marginal players to the degree that, as one British journalist put it recently, some will be remembered as "celebrities who just happened to be football players."
Nothing can come close to the nastiness of the British press as they fabricate, ridicule and sensationalize to an insane level. Building players up and then bashing them into the ground at the slightest opportunity is one of their tricks. Or simply reporting on the tawdry private lives of a few individuals who also happen to possess great playing ability.
The Toronto press are well mannered and tame in comparison though they still take up issues that are questionable and see players' lives as potential fodder for gossip and rumours. While the British scribes are reporting on the sordid sex lives of English football players, Toronto writers usually focus on more bland subjects such as Darcy Tucker relaxing at his Muskoka cottage in the off-season. Though they will report on more titillating issues when they become impossible to avoid.
The core of writers who follow both teams and are most concerned about games, results, skills and playing ability are a large group who exhibit a herd mentality that ricochets in the opposite direction at the merest whiff of disaster or success. The demand for narratives, analysis and predictions means that each small development is leapt on by a journalist eager to be the first to report on what could be the next big story. The combined output of any one writer is often more schizophrenic than the play of the team they cover.
Regarding the specific makeup of management and individual players, the current incarnations of both squads have a number of similarities as well. With the exception of one older and fading superstar on both teams (Mats Sundin and David Beckham), the rest of the players can be classified as overhyped and overpaid disappointments (though obviously players on the English team don't get paid for international competition, they receive huge sums from their club sides and endorsements.)
There are also some parallels between Sundin and Beckham's style and performance. While Beckham is a world-wide icon who often seems more concerned with boosting his image and racking up endorsement contracts as opposed to concentrating on his play, he is still noted for his effort and ability to perform at an advanced age (in football terms.) Sundin as well delivers night after night while he is surrounded by others who don't pull their weight nearly as consistently.
Sundin is but a blip compared to the visibility Beckham enjoys. Despite that fame, Beckham retains a surprising level of ostensible modesty and has a soft-spoken demeanor not unlike Sundin.
The management of the Leafs and England's national side are, at this point in time, very comparable (though of course the role of a hockey general manager and football manager differ somewhat.) Steve McClaren has but minutes left in his brief tenure as England's manager (correction: it's already over) and unless a miracle is on the horizon, John Ferguson Junior's days as Leafs' GM are also numbered. Both men have been lambasted in the media as underqualified and nearly incompetent in their performances. Press reports for both have long since veered into mockery and the caricature that resonates is of pitiful, desperate buffoons.
Recent success has been limited. England reached the semifinals of the 1990 Football World Cup but have had little else to cheer for since their victory in '66. In the European Championship they have reached the semi-finals twice, in 1968 and 1996, but have never advanced beyond that point.
The Maple Leafs have made it to the playoff semi-finals five times since their last Stanley Cup in 1967 but have not made it to the finals once during that 40 year stretch.
The fan bases for the Leafs and England are huge, rabid in their support and apparently loyal to the end, regardless of how long the losing continues. While the vast majority are decent individuals who enjoy supporting their side, it's fair to say that a misplaced arrogance also permeates a significant portion of each team's supporters. Perhaps unbridled rage at how such limitless resources and attention to the game can result in few positive outcomes? I've experienced nastiness from both.
Years ago while traveling in Spain, I landed in Barcelona on the eve of a big match-up between one of the city's top sides and Manchester United. We attempted to get tickets but the game was sold out so we settled for a small pub in the shadow of the huge stadium. Man U were hammered 4-0. Enraged Brits in their team's colours were stalking the area after the game looking for trouble and the following day the papers were filled with accounts of violence and vandalism.
While living and working part-time in London pubs a number of years ago, I witnessed the booze-soaked post match gutlessness of the fringe minority who sought an outlet for their impotent rage.
Only one tale regarding a Leafs' fan. It must have been about 2002 and I was sitting in a pub in Vancouver. There was a playoff game between the Leafs and another team on the big screen. Not sure if it was the game in which Toronto were eliminated but regardless, they lost.
There was an emaciated individual in a Leafs jersey sitting alone and pondering the cruelty of life and the realization that it was all over for another year. I was having a pint with a friend and discussing the game. While I don't recall inviting the Toronto fan, who looked like a junky who had crawled in from Hastings and Main, to listen in on or join our conversation, at the merest mention of the word "Leafs" this wacko was in my face.
I seriously considered battering the fool into the concrete but I settled for laying a verbal assault on him as he shrank back into his seat, shut his gob and proceeded to profusely apologize. In the heat of the moment he seemed to recognize that he had erred and had the decency to say sorry. I guess a person could admire his commitment and the willingness to take such an unwise risk in what he thought was the defense of his team.
Comparisons between the two are a bit limited of course. The English national team play in a small number of major tournaments and players can be invited to participate without regard for financial concerns or other teams competing for their services. But the Leafs also have no real financial obstacles and still fail to hire the best managers, scouts and apparently, coaches.
So what's the reason for such limited success in the midst of endless enthusiasm, finances and, at least in England's case, a culture that results in widespread participation and layers of player development? Is the pressure so intense and the dreams of glory so enchanting that no one can play or manage to their potential? Or maybe a subconscious sense of entitlement and assumption stoked by the surreal media coverage? Hard to say.
One thing is clear however. Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and England's national football team have little hope for any real success in the near future.