I WON’T launch into any sanctimonious rant about the calamitous harbinger of apocalypse that is England’s seventies retro failure to qualify for a major tournament. Firstly, I am not really an emotional stakeholder in the FA XI, and, secondly, there will be a tsunami of hypocritical bile and blinkered patriotic self delusion to contend with in the next few days anyway.
I’m not that bothered about England. I think it is a distraction from the passionate engagement of club football and comes enveloped within layer upon layer of preposterous media hype and expectation that rubs me up the wrong way. It doesn’t hurt me if England lose. It hasn’t ruined my week. I won’t be changing my holiday plans for next Summer. If anything I will enjoy the European Championships more now that we won’t have to put with the foaming mouthed xenophobia and rabid tabloid tub thumping that comes as standard with games against nations we once waged war against back in the mists of time.
But I will say this: anyone who believes that England have a divine right to qualify for every major tournaments just because they invented the game and won the big one once needs to seriously examine both the realities of world football and their own unfounded expectations.
It doesn’t matter how easy a scapegoat the Steve McClaren makes, or how easy it is to demand victory in every match as a minimum from players just because they are paid squillions of pounds a week, or how spectacular a setting for big games the new Wembley is, or how much the FA would make from qualification, or how big the back page headlines that scream ‘England Expects’ – this is a team that has a woeful record on the world stage and anyone who expects England should cruise into every major tournament is expecting too much.
Most England fans and the entire massed ranks of Her Majesty’s Press Corps believe England to be a football super power. Why? This Newcastle of the global game have reached the World Cup final once in 56 years (and then with home advantage and some generous refereeing) and have never been in the European Championships final at all. This is a team that consistently reaches the quarter-finals before crashing out amid broken dreams and bitter recriminations (usually about cheating foreigners) but rarely is there any realistic assessment of why.
The bottom line is that England are not good enough. They are a yo-yo team that fluctuate between being the eighth and 16th best team in the world. Despite having one of the strongest and richest domestic structures in the world the game here remains insular and inflexible. The high-tempo athleticism that makes the Premier League the biggest bums on seats spectacle on Planet Football is ironically a style that when pitted against other more sophisticated approaches is revealed as a tactically and technically inferior anachronism.
True, Premier League teams regularly make progress in the Champions League – but those teams are dominated by expensively imported foreign talent. Stripped of the magic Fancy Dannery and thrown back to a utilitarian reliance on the traditional virtues of muscularity, passion and the long ball forward England are repeatedly found wanting against sides who are better organised, more skilful and who control and pass the ball more effectively.
We are constantly told that England has world class players but where are they? In England. It is telling that the big clubs in Europe – Barca, Juventus, Bayern, the Milans, Juve etc – are not raiding England to snap up the talent. The reason for that is because they do not believe that the skill set of the average English player is readily transferable to a different footballing culture, that they are not flexible enough to switch to a slower but more technically demanding environment: that they are not good enough.
And it is not just the superstars. In a Europe where free movement of labour is the norm within the game there is no marked outward traffic of journeymen players or coaches who are exporting skills then importing the lessons to replenish and strengthen the domestic game. There can’t be much demand for bruising defenders who can’t control the ball or dynamic tackling machines with woeful distribution, players whose second nature is to play it long and direct and who believe that getting stuck in is the key to success.
The other side of the coin is that the English game is recruiting from abroad those who have skills that here are regarded as top of the range added extras but abroad are seen as bog standard. We are a nation who regard Joe Cole as some kind of supernatural conjuror because he can do a few step-overs before he crosses harmlessly into the crowd.
Until English football embraces a culture of technique, tactical awareness and comfortable close control rather than sheer industry and is willing to put time and money into making those the virtues promoted in school, youth and grassroots football it will continue to stumble every time it attempts to bridge the cultural gap.
The truth is probably that we don’t want to do that, that we LIKE our football fast and furious and unpredictable because work-rate can overcome wizardry and that makes it possible for lesser teams – of which we have many – to hold their own. We don’t want a culture of excellence, we want a more egalitarian approach that elevates endeavour above artistry and offers the hope that sheer toil and commitment can lead to success. And ultimately because our clubs are our primary concern we certainly don’t want to sacrifice that for the benefit of the national team.