Soccer’s preeminent tournament, the World Cup, wraps up this weekend. We’ve already seen a semifinal (Argentina and the Netherlands) end in a tie, requiring a shoot-out to determine the winner.
The shoot-out requires entirely different skills than the game that’s preceded it, of course. “The match proper is a team game, but a penalty kick is a lone endeavor,” as The Economist explained recently.
That British news magazine noted that the English team is especially inept in shoot-outs. This year that didn’t matter, as the English were banished from the World Cup in the preliminary round anyway. Still, the squad has suffered six losses in seven shoot-outs at international competitions, making it the worst in that category since penalty kicks were introduced as tie-breakers in 1982. The Economist, semi-jokingly, calls this “the English disease.”
But that’s not the real disease plaguing the English side. The real problem, undiagnosed but possibly worsening, is that in international soccer the English go it alone. They compete against, instead of as teammates of, the rest of the United Kingdom. In the games as in life, England is weaker without Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Consider Wales, which is small, but produces some excellent soccer players. Not enough to field a competitive team (it’s only made the World Cup finals once) but enough to have contributed five players to the British soccer team that competed in the 2012 Olympics, when the entire U.K. competed as a single team.
Politics may yet follow sports down the separatist path.
On September 18, voters in Scotland will go to the polls to decide whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. “For the first time in 307 years, Scotland could break away; the United Kingdom could be not so united; Great Britain could be somewhat less great, geographically at least; Scotland could be free in a brave new world,” as the New York Times put it.