Scapegoat conceals real reason for press fixation

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Gareth Southgate was one. David Beckham another. Phil Neville was also one. As was David Seaman. Urs Meier was certainly one. And now Cristiano Ronaldo has become the most recent one. But just what links these gentlemen? Well, other than their obvious connection with football, they have all had a rocky relationship with the English press who have blamed, harassed and finished footballing careers following perceived injustices on the pitch. They have all been holders of that most English crown: the scapegoat.

Every two years, the country unites to cheer on the national team. But while fans and the press alike profess to be supporters, deep down the later are secretly hoping a rash tackle, an own goal, a sending off, or a dodgy decision will be England’s downfall; and with it their god-given right to be Champions. Of course the press will deny such a policy, tenaciously providing examples of ‘Cheer for our Boys’ headlines and their free give-away England memorabilia.

But, the hard truth is international tournaments rarely register a blip on the tabloids’ most important asset – sales. However, while the nationals’ circulation during this summers World Cup were looking predictably gloomy, the Manchester United and Portuguese winger Ronaldo provided that ray of light editors had been gleaming for when he appeared to ask for his club mate Wayne Rooney to be sent off. The press now had a story that would encapsulate the ‘mood of a nation’. Those humble moral guardians!

But while the press were dithering over which jingoistic headline they could come up with, the BBC punditry team had already identified the culprit and were first to give their analysis. Alan Shearer, that beacon of fair play was first to act, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Rooney stuck one on him [Ronaldo] in training”. Ian Wright as ever had a view on the incident calling it “disgusting”. Of course little was made of that the fact that even with ten men England should have won the game. For all the tactical wizardry that Phil Scolari is known for, there was a little sign of it in Germany. Against a ten-man England team he played one up front allowing Sven Goran Eriksson’s men time to re-group and push forward. Unfortunately the England coach, so inept at tactical decisions, could not take advantage of the Portuguese defensive approach, and the inevitable lose on penalties soon followed.

Ronaldo is now public enemy number one. At the age of just 21 he will have to deal with the Premiership crowds next season if he is to stay at Manchester United, baying for his blood and booing his every touch. We need a scapegoat. We cannot deal with the fact that the team are simply not good enough. Indeed, as the football author Emma Poulton suggests, the scapegoat is used to enhance national identity during these tournaments, with the press promoting an “us and them” nature in order to re-affirm the ‘bulldog spirit’. A country that once ruled the world, which gave birth to the beautiful game, believes it has a right to reclaim what is theirs. But we don’t. We have a superiority complex born out of an inferiority complex. An illusion.

But the media build on this illusion, and when it cracks – as it inevitably does – they need a reason as to why. A reason that will not invoke curiosity or questioning: therefore we lost because of one stupid boy; we lost thanks to an ‘Urs hole’; we lost following a rash tackle. We lost thanks to a Portuguese ‘winker’.