LYON, France — We have found the most sensitive soul at the World Cup – it's English coach Phil Neville.
Send hugs. Send sympathy. This guy can get offended at anything.
Either that, or he was just so desperate to find some kind of perceived slight by the United States to motivate his team before Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal clash that he’s willing to moan and lecture about nothing … literally nothing. (Considering Neville is former player for Manchester United, we're guessing this is it.)
The issue? Well, apparently two staff members of U.S. Soccer dared to visit the hotel here in Lyon where FIFA would put the Americans should they defeat England and advance to Sunday’s World Cup final.
England is currently staying at that hotel. The U.S. is at a different one.
The two staffers were administrators who work in operations. They were not coaches or players or scouts. There is no allegation of spying. Even Phil Neville couldn’t go that far. They were there, apparently, to see where the meeting rooms and training areas and things like that are located. Basically they were doing their job.
Neville somehow got so bent out of shape – passive-aggressively, of course – that he declared all of this a breach of “etiquette” and suggested that U.S. coach Jill Ellis discipline the staffers. (Spoiler: she won’t.)
“It is not something I would want my team [operations] person to do,” Neville stated Sunday at the pre-match press conference. “It’s not something England would do. We’re happy with our hotel. We were training. So, I hope they enjoyed the hotel.
“It’s not something we’d do, send someone around to another team’s hotel,” Neville continued. “But it’s their problem. I’m sure Jill would not have been happy with that arrangement. I wouldn’t have been if that was my team opps person going around. And I’m sure she will be dealing with that within their own discipline.”
No one wanted to hurt Neville’s feelings and alert him to the fact that Ellis will not be taking his advice for staff punishment. Actually, she was cool with the visit. U.S. staffers also reportedly visited the hotel in Nice, France that FIFA will put them if they lose to England and have to play in the third-place game.
Ellis appeared slightly amused when the British media asked her if this was a sign of American arrogance.
Really, an English coach lecturing the Americans about the proper etiquette of operations staffer is a sign of American arrogance?
Ellis just smiled.
“Well I would assume everybody’s doing that,” Ellis said. “You have to plan ahead. The only two people who think of planning ahead on my team is my administrator, because she has to book all the flights and everything and do all that stuff, and her boss. Everybody else, we don’t worry about that. So that’s probably who the two people were and that’s important to do your job.
“So in terms of arrogance, I think that’s got nothing to do with us,” Ellis continued. “That’s planning, preparation for our staff. So yeah, it’s pretty normal … they think about that so we don’t have to.”
Neville did not think it was normal. He tried to downplay it at times, but his feelings – or pretend feelings (they can’t be real) – on the subject were clear by the fact he kept droning on and on about it.
“It’s not an unfair advantage,” he said, noting the obvious. “It will have no bearing on the game. I actually found it quite funny. I just thought, ‘what doing?’ It’s not etiquette really, is it? It’s not something I would allow for our organization.”
Other than it being quite humorous, this was quite welcome. The play here at the World Cup has been excellent, but also mostly respectful, at least before the games. Great competitions are always a better with a little spice, and while this is about the smallest amount of spice as can possibly exist (are we really discussing the operations administrator?), every little bit helps.
If Phil Neville is willing to make a fool out of himself over this to add to the drama, then so be it.
Perhaps Sensitive Phil and this semifinal game is the start of a great USA-England rivalry. The Brits are late to embracing women’s football – U.S. coach Jill Ellis wasn’t even allowed to play as a girl growing up there.
The team has become a legit global power now though. It reached the semifinals of the 2015 World Cup, losing on a brutal own goal. It won the American-run SheBelieves Cup earlier this year. It boasts a number of stars, including Lucy Bronze, who Neville declared “the best player in the world.”
Neville became England coach 17 months ago and acknowledges that he took the job to win it all.
“The 18-month plan will come to fruition on Tuesday night,” he said. “That’s what I believe.”
Remember, this is the guy bringing up the actions of the operations staff in a controversy that was supposedly about overconfident Americans.
“You go to tournaments to win,” he said. “My players want to win. If you don’t get the right result, we will feel the disappointment and we will feel the failure. Our mindset is winning … elite sport is about winning. Nobody cares who wins the silver and the bronze …”
On that, perhaps both countries can agree. There will be no moral victories on Tuesday.
It’s also why Neville doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who really cares about a hotel tour. The more he talked, the less he was able to stay in character, which is good, because that isn’t a very becoming character.
Instead he sounded like the kind of guy who is desperate to win the World Cup and will do anything and say anything if he thinks it will help.
It’s rather American of him, actually.
“America has that ruthless streak about wanting to win,” Neville said. “That’s what I admire. And my team has that now.”
But what about your operations staff, Phil?
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