Is Football Coming Home At Last?

1st April 2010

In less than three months the nation will be gripped by World Cup fever (heaven help us…).
It’s time to get out your rattles and scarves, and practise your cheerleading skills. Or is it?

Phil Wall thinks not…

On 12 June England kick off their World Cup 2010 finals campaign. Winning their qualifying group by six points wiped out the memory of failing to reach the Euro 2008 finals, and served to reinforce the view that England are among the favourites for South Africa 2010. So the question on the lips of every cabbie, journalist and bar room pundit is can England win?

And the answer is yes, of course they can. They’re one of the better teams in the tournament, they have a relatively easy first round group to negotiate, and after that it’s a knockout competition where anyone can get a bit of luck and, as a one off, beat anyone else. This was proved in the Euro 2004 championships, won by unfancied Greece, and in Euro ’92, won by Denmark, who were there only as last minute substitutes for war-torn Yugoslavia. Admittedly it’s harder for an outside bet to win the World Cup… but then England is a much stronger footballing nation than either Greece or Denmark.

So England certainly can win in South Africa – but I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that they almost certainly won’t. This has nothing to do with off-field distractions caused by John Terry, or last-minute problems with metatarsal injuries, missed drugs tests, dodgy goalkeeping form or any of the other random issues that seem to plague England’s tournament preparations. No, there are a few more fundamental reasons why England will once again come home empty-handed:

1. We’re not as good as we think we are.
People have been kicking balls around for thousands of years, but it was the English who invented the modern game of football, wrote the rules, formed the first league and played the first international (admittedly that was a joint effort with Scotland). The FA declined to join FIFA when it was formed in 1904 (what did we need them for?) and didn’t play in the first three World Cups in the 1930s, when we would actually have had a very good chance of winning. We then underachieved in the four tournaments from 1950 to 1962, while the nation somehow retained the belief that English football was superior to everyone else’s. Even being famously hammered 6-3 by the Hungarians at Wembley in 1953 couldn’t shake this conviction. What we didn’t notice was that while we sat splendidly in island isolation, other European nations were joining together into a Common Market and swapping ideas and expertise in trade, industry, infrastructure, government – and sport. The likes of Germany, France, Italy and Holland developed a new and improved brand of football after World War II, a more thoughtful, passing game – which England ignored.

Then in 1966 we hosted the World Cup for the first time, and won it! This was enough to wipe out any doubts that may have been forming about England’s superiority, we were back where we belonged!

Or so it seemed.

In reality, at the same time as we won the World Cup the Dutch were inventing ‘Total Football’; the rest of Europe copied or adapted it and we fell further behind, failing to qualify for two World Cups in the 1970s. Yet, still, every England team goes to tournaments with the press and public expecting them to win. One day perhaps we will, but our thinking has to catch up first. Which leads me on to…

2. We don’t really rate foreign managers and coaches.

While other countries have always been happy to take expertise from wherever they can, the English attitude is that we invented the game, so why would we need help? Foreign managers are just seen as interlopers taking jobs from good honest British ex-pros. Why, some of these foreigners – Arsène Wenger, Jose Mourinho – didn’t even play top class football! The cheek of it! This attitude, though, ignores the reality of how other countries have become successful.

Greece, for example, rank outsiders at Euro 2004, employed German manager Otto Rehhagel to organise them into a winning team. In 1996 Turkey qualified – also via German know-how – for their first major tournament in 42 years; since then they’ve reached World Cup and Euro semi-finals. Dutchman Guus Hiddink managed Australia to their first finals in 32 years in 2006, and took South Korea to the World Cup semi-final in 2002. Players and administrators in all these countries on the margins of football know that they need foreign expertise to improve, but perhaps the English don’t feel the same way. The FA employed Sven Goran Eriksson, but his success was limited as much by his players’ lack of vision as any shortcomings of his own. When Sven failed to bring back a trophy he was replaced by Steve McLaren, possibly the worst England manager ever, appointed on the back of one reasonable season in domestic football and sacked none too soon. Now the national team has a second foreign manager in the respected Fabio Capello, and the tide may have turned a little. Even so, do the FA and England’s players believe that Fabio knows more than Sam Allardyce or Harry Redknapp? Sadly, I suspect not.
And finally…

3. There aren’t enough Englishmen in foreign football.

It’s often said these days that there are too many foreigners in the Premier League, so English players don’t get the chance to develop. In fact about 37% of players in the Premier League are currently English, so picking a decent 11 from 150 or so shouldn’t be too difficult. And the 63% of foreigners provide top quality opposition for the English players week in, week out, which is surely exactly what’s needed? Being insular didn’t work, after all.

The problem is that it’s not just a top quality league, it’s a tough league. It has as many or more games than any other top division, all played at frantic pace and with every mid-table or struggling side encouraged by the media and their fans to ‘get stuck in’ to the fancy-Dan foreigners and the most skilful Englishmen. After nine months of that, all the top English players (and some foreigners) are exhausted. The Italian and Spanish leagues are far less frenetic; the game is slower and the weak teams are weaker. Top players are not on full throttle all season, and not having to try and peak for 40 weeks running. The trouble is that all England’s players play in England. If we could send two thirds of them abroad they could turn up at major championships refreshed and raring to go, rather than desperately in need of a rest. The tiredness means there’s also no hope of fitness improving between the end of the regular season and a major tournament. Many matches are won late on, and the countries that score the vital late goals are either expert at pacing themselves (Italy), using better fitness techniques than others (Turkey recently), or both (Germany).

So England can win the World Cup this year, because they’re a good team who could get lucky. They probably won’t, because the innate English superiority complex still lets us down in so many ways. Victory in 1966 covered up the cracks and probably did more long term harm than good to English football. We wouldn’t have won without hosting the tournament: international football has a two-thirds of a goal per game home advantage on average… we made full use of that.

There is hope for England, though: Spain, despite some club level European success, were perennial underachievers internationally during the self-imposed isolation of the Franco era. Like England they made use of hosting a tournament to win in the 1960s (Euro ’64) but did little else. However, their integration into the European mainstream in recent decades culminated, in footballing terms, in another major tournament victory at Euro 2008, and they go to South Africa as favourites. If we English can think our way into mainstream Europe, we too could end up with greater success on the football pitch.

Should football fans start a campaign to join the Euro?

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