Football’s left home and doesn’t look like it’s coming back

There are just 45 days to go until the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Any list of favourites will surely include Brazil, Spain, Italy, Argentina and Germany. England are not on many pundits’ lists. Why does the country which gave the world football as we know it, not considered a serious candidate? This is normally fodder for the sports pages, but I recently heard an academic analysing this issue. Anthony King, Professor of Sociology at the University of Exeter recently appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed to give sociological perspective on the English national team’s repeated failures at international competitions. He looks at five different causes of the English malaise:

1) The FA

By dint of being the first national football federation of its kind, English football’s governing body has the kudos of being called the Football Association (FA). However, being first does not mean that you have a God-given right to success. King is particularly damning in his criticism of the FA:

“… but there is a clear pattern throughout FA’s post-war history, accelerating in the last 20 years, of administrative amateurish, inconstancy, inadequacy and even incompetence. The organization has been unable to administer the national team effectively by appointing, directing and supporting an appropriate England manager. In this way, the FA has contributed to the consistently poor performance of England in international tournaments.”

King argues that the Premier League, which was created in 1992, has undermined the FA’s position. He believes that we need a more centralised system like they have in France and Germany. He may be right, but given what he says about the amateurish nature of the FA, would they be the right people to wield all this power?

2) The managers

King looks at the perennial problem of finding English-born managers of international standard, a problem which seems to have got worse over the last twenty years. Traditionally managers were chosen from the First Division with Alf Ramsey, Don Revie,            Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson being chosen in this way. But even in this period there were a lot of managers from Scotland Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish were all born and raised in a small area of Glasgow. Given the limited talent pool the FA have sought talent abroad, the first being Sven Goran Eriksson in 2000. However, these foreign managers have failed to bring the desired results. This is particularly so in the case of Capello, a consummate professional with a fantastic record in international club football. What went wrong? It might be the language or maybe he wasn’t attuned to English sensibilities. It will be interesting to see how he does with Russia. While the FA could appoint a Swede, an Italian and in one failed attempt a Brazilian, it would be impossible to have a Scotsman at the helm.

For me the greatest injustice was not appointing Brian Clough, who did not fit in the profile the FA is looking for. We do not know if he would have been successful, but he was a man with u unique footballing brain capable of winning two European Cups with Nottingham Forest. He may have a drink problem, but give me a drunken Clough over a sober Taylor or McClaren any day of the week.

3) The media

The British media, or more particularly the tabloid press, are another key factor. The Leveson Inquiry was not about football, but the kind of behaviour that tabloid journalists engage in was very much relevant in football. The papers have been especially brutal with the figure of the England manager. It’s easier to remember Graham Taylor being pilloried by The Sun after England were knocked out the 1992 European Championships in the qualifying stages by Sweden: “Swedes 2 Turnips 1.” The front page, which featured a large photograph of Taylor’s head half-transformed into a turnip, was accompanied by this headline: “That’s your allotment; turnip Taylor turns up his toes”. When England failed to reach the finals of the same tournament in 2008 Steve McClaren became “the wally with the brolly“. Bobby Robson, who was the last manager to take England to a World Cup semi-final, was often treated very harshly between 1982 and 1990.  Dubbed “Plonker” by the Sun, Robson was very unpopular after a disastrous 1988 European championship, in which they went home after losing all three matches. Later that same year they could only manage a draw with Saudi Arabia in a friendly match and the knives were out Robson. The Mirror’s headline was “Go, In The Name Of Allah, Go”, while the Sun went with “England Mustafa New Boss”.

Capello was “the prat in the hat”. The current incumbent Roy Hodgson’s speech impediment was the cause to lampoon him: “Bwing on the Euwos! (We’ll see you in Ukwaine against Fwance)”.

This could be seen as a bit of harmless fun, but there are other more egregious examples of press activity. Sven Goran Eriksson, whose phone was hacked into by the News of the World and the Mirror, was also the victim of a sting operation, in which the Swede was filmed having a meeting with an individual, impersonating a wealthy Arab sheikh who claimed he was going to buy Aston Villa and wanted to hire Eriksson as its manager. His private life was also subject to relentless scrutiny. A serious candidate for the England position has to think long and hard whether it is worth submitting yourself to this kind of attention.

4) The players

For me the principal problem with the England team is the players. Here I totally agree with King. I am a believer in free trade and competition. I don’t buy the idea that the players are being blighted by the competition from foreign players. Maybe they are just not good enough. It is undoubtedly true that the Bosman ruling has facilitated a massive influx of foreign players in English clubs. However it has not stopped English footballers plying their trade abroad. British players can play in any EU league. The problem is that English players have been incapable of taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by Bosman. They were alone in all the teams in the 2012 European Championship to field a squad in which no one played in a foreign league.

It is true that British players don’t tend to travel very well. King cites that infamous Ian Rush quote after he had failed to set the world on fire at Juventus at the end of the 1980s:

It was like living in a foreign country”.

Michael Owen could not get into the Spanish way of life during his brief sojourn at Real Madrid:

“I missed my family, my house, my old team mates, the golfing, my dogs, the whole English package, even the rain.”

It is easy to poke fun at the insularity of these two players, but there is little evidence that globalisation and multiculturalism have had any significant impact on this provincialism. The FA and the clubs show no interest in teaching them foreign languages, even though many of their teammates speak French, Italian, Spanish or German. King also cites the work of Kuper and Szymanski who identify the low level of education of English footballers as a critical reason for the national team’s failure. They note that most English footballers leave school at 16 with almost no qualifications. the clubs’ academies actively discourage education; ‘all the boys we met there, bright or otherwise, were sent to do the same single GNVQ [General National Vocational Qualification] in Leisure and Tourism to fulfil the academy’s minimum education requirement’ Even the slave drivers of Barcelona’s infamous La Masia sweatshop encourage their players to get an education.

5) The fans

King refers to the writing of Brian Glanville, who argued that British fans had a certain animosity to skill, preferring a fast pace and determination. What seems to have happened in recent years is a king of resigned fatalism. It is an attitude reflected in the song Football’s Coming Home by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. Thirty years of hurt is now fast approaching the half century. Yet, there is something strangely comforting in identifying with failure, a point I covered in my post about baseball.

Conclusion

This stoicism is probably more realistic. However, it fails to address the technical shortcomings. I am not sure King has added very much to the debate. Any solutions will have to be long-term and there is no guarantee of success. There are other sports where you can throw money at the problem and you can achieve immediate results. Football is just so competitive and there is only one team who will win the World Cup. I certainly never foresaw Spain’s recent run of success. I probably could have written a similar article 45 days before the 2008 Euros explaining why Spain were underachievers and all the things wrong with Spanish football. What I do think is that the FA could do a better job. And English players should take advantage of the opportunities that the Bosman ruling has provided. I would love if England did win it. This would mean that my two countries would have won the last two tournaments. If not, we’ll always have 1966.

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2 Responses to Football’s left home and doesn’t look like it’s coming back

  1. Alberto says:

    When writing, your irony about F.C. Barcelona is not so evident… unless it’s not ironical.

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