England’s Golden Generation: All Mettle, No Medal

If you’re a Grantland nut, you may have noticed – or even read – Brian Phillips’s article from October 11 titled, “Sunset for the Golden Generation”.

Much to your dismay, this wasn’t about breakfast at Cora’s restaurant or scuba diving on Australia’s east coast – although Grantland would gladly write about both and call it ESPN, you can be sure. No, this was about England’s Golden Generation. It’s national soccer team. Sorry. Football team. They have been England’s pride and joy, but also Paul Rudd in Our Idiot Brother – so like family and, at once, so embarrassingly putrid. You love them at Thanksgiving, but you’re back to cursing them and their life decisions when the weekend’s over.

The Golden Generation refers to this now-or-soon-exiting group of superstars and worldwide megatrons. They will retire soon. And, when they do, they will go out as the biggest and most profitable era of English footballing history.

They will also go out without a title. Of, like, any kind.

In one paragraph, Phillips lets loose with three separate and long – it is Grantland, after all – sentences that might just perfectly describe the descent of a one-time sure thing.

1. “The Golden Generation was maybe the purest experiment ever conducted in how thoroughly the mechanics of celebrity can f*** up the public lives of the people around whom they operate. Can you imagine how indulged John Terry must have been, by everyone he met, in the mid-2000s? How does your ego not run away with you, if you’re never told no?”

2. “… Eventually you take things too far, or don’t live up to people’s (escalatingly unreasonable) expectations – you don’t qualify for Euro 2008, and a story starts to circulate that you’re sleeping with your wife’s 16-year-old sister (As one did about Steven Gerrard) – and the switch flips from worship to loathing, and suddenly you’re embattled, the media is airing your dirty laundry, and you find yourself one step outside Sextape-ville. Or worse.”

3. “By about 2008, most of what seemed good about the Golden Generation had been over written by an aura of besieged trashiness. Terry’s transformation from valiant captain to aggrieved racist was – even if neither image really matched who he was – the fitting culmination of the decline of the whole group.”

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If Champions League trophies are your thing, rest assured that a few of these superstar Britons have a couple. Or, even, just one. The Premier League loves the Champions League, after all. Oh, yes, Barcelona, Madrid, and AC Milan have popped up from time-to-time, and they may even be the favourite for this or any year. But, as a collective, English teams have dominated the landscape like no other.

Chelsea. Man U. Man City. Liverpool. Arsenal. From time-to-time, they’ve all had a chance at Europe’s annual trophy, while other nations have to pick one to get behind and send them into battle.

Then again, among those Premiership clubs, their most dynamic performers have not been the English ones. Sure, Gerrard, Rooney, Lampard and Terry have played pivotal roles. But, Torres and Drogba were the ones coming through for Chelsea last year. Cristiano Ronaldo was the best plater on Manchester United when they won in 2008. There’s Petr Cech, too. And, Mario Balotelli.

England’s national team seems to take the field like they’re auditioning for Guy Ritchie’s next film. Like, hopefully, Noel and Liam Gallagher will invite them backstage for an Oasis concert. It’s as if they’ve been living out their dream for the sake of the dream, only to realize they have no shot at a championship while they stay together.

Early years of promise – you know, when Michael Owen and David Beckham were still launching footballs back and forth – were quelled by a dominant Brazilian squad in 2002, a cheeky and bastardly Portuguese team in 2004 and 2006, and by their own hand in 2008.

They weren’t up to any task at the World Cup in 2010, and then saw a clear tying goal from Frank Lampard shut down by a blind referee in their (eventual) 4-1 loss to Germany.

England was embarrassed by Italy at this summer’s European Championship.

All of a sudden, after 14 years of relevance and early potential, England’s Golden Generation will move on without anything to show for it, save for some appearances in FHM UK and just maybe a couple references in Love, Actually.

Phillips says it best:

“What I keep thinking, whenever fresh Terry news slithers past, is that when the history of this era of soccer is written, the matter of the Football Association Applicant) – and – John George Terry (Respondent) ought to mark the official end of England’s Golden Generation. Because there was a moment – this really happened! – when the “England’s Brave John Terry” nickname wasn’t at all ironic; when he, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, et al. looked like plausible sports heroes who were going to accomplish great things.

“Think back to, say, 2004, through around the day in 2006 when Wayne Rooney’s fourth metatarsal fractured. We believe, kind of, that Gerrard was a local boy made good who went drinking with Liverpool fans after matches. We thought Jamie Carrager really was a selfless fighter, that Beckham was a leader, that Owen could still recapture his form. Joe Cole was going to bring Continental flair to Chelsea, remember? They weren’t favourites to win the World Cup, but they were at least going to be comfortably elite for a long time; and more important, they blend English oak, never gave up, and commanded legitimate admiration. They were exciting. The media construct seemed real, or at least real-ish.”

That phrase comfortably elite sums up this English generation like no other. It should serve as a cautionary line for future athletes who aren’t okay with just being good enough to possibly win some day. It should make you hungrier. Faster. Stronger.

It should have scared the pants off this England team. Unfortunately, they wear shorts.