This piece originally appeared in the New York Times Goal blog, on 8 June 2010. The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/englands-captain-enters-world-cup-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder/
“England Captain Enters World Cup With A Chip On His Shoulder”
Several players, possibly even entire teams, will arrive at the World Cup suffering from a severe affliction. Its name? The World Grudge.
The World Grudge is, simply put, an unusually high level of resentment, held if not against the world at large, then most definitely against its journalists. The World Grudge is borne by those participants in the World Cup whose prospects of success have been thoroughly questioned, if not dismissed altogether.
Possibly the most famous example of the World Grudge is Diego Maradona’s Argentina at the World Cup in 1990. During that tournament held in Italy, the only things more numerous than Maradona’s curls were his snarls. Maradona was chiefly maligned because he played for Napoli, a team based in the poor south of Italy, and one that he felt was sneered upon by the Northern footballing elites of A.C. Milan, Internazionale, and Juventus. Seizing upon each slight that he was offered — of which there were many — he led a team as loathed as much as any in recent memory. This was not only because it eliminated the home nation, but also because its soccer almost made the unusually staid Brazil look adventurous.
However, Argentina showed just how effective a motivation the World Grudge could be, as it flew far on the wings of grievance. Defending the title it had won in 1986, it reached the final against what was then West Germany. During his national anthem, which was bitterly jeered by a great many Italians, Maradona was seen seething. His team lost an acrimonious final by a late, single goal; perhaps inevitably, the Argentines had two players sent off, a record that still stands.
Who, among this year’s contestants, are particularly passionate bearers of the World Grudge? Given that few men are as obliging with their innermost thoughts as Maradona, it is hard to know for sure, but there are a few candidates, the most obvious of whom is England’s Steven Gerrard. In March, immediately before a friendly match against Egypt, Gerrard took umbrage at the news media’s suggestion that England’s sole threat was Wayne Rooney.
“I think Wayne would agree with me that there are a lot of other talented players in the squad, some of whom help him to produce his best,” Gerrard, who plays for Liverpool, said without naming himself or, indeed, needing to. “If people want to think we are just a one-man team, then let them,” he continued. “They will be in for a big surprise when they play against us.”
Except they will not. Gerrard, like Maradona before him, has always responded with a particular intensity when the first droplets of doubt are inked in his direction. It is notable that three of the most striking performances of his career — the FA Cup final victory on penalties against West Ham United (2006), the 4-1 victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford (2009), and the extra-time triumph in the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final against A.C. Milan — have come when he has been forced to drag Liverpool from a position of adversity.
At this moment, Gerrard could barely be in a greater quandary about his club career. This, after all, has been a season in which he saw his side take several retrograde steps. It lost its manager, Rafael Benitez, after six ultimately unsatisfying years, finished 23 points behind Chelsea and, arguably worse still, 22 points behind the loathed Manchester United. On top of that, Liverpool endured an early elimination from European competition, a field where it once ran riot.
Gerrard is therefore perfectly placed to express his World Grudge. Like Maradona, he is about to embark on the World Cup campaign as the captain of an expectant yet ailing national team, with the wind of a bitter season in his sails. This makes him a vessel that few opponents, least of all the United States in his opening match, will welcome into view.