james debate
james debate

Tuesday 29 June 2010

So after all the hype, all the hope, and all the insane pressure from the fans and media, the England football team have once again failed to deliver. More than that, they crashed out in a spectacularly depressing fashion, suffering their biggest ever defeat in the World Cup Finals 4-1 at the hands of their arch rivals, Germany.

Needless to say, I feel as though I should say a word or two. At times like these it's so difficult to maintain an objective standpoint and distinguish between the hyperbole of the lazy media narratives, the knee-jerk masochism of disappointed English football fans (and as a Chelsea fan I have more experience with this than anyone), and that most elusive of things, reality. Big problems face English football, and maybe we're looking in the wrong places for answers.

england football team

As many of you know, I have been voicing my concerns for a number of months now on England's world cup preparations, so it comes as absolutely no shock to me to see us fail so miserably at this year's tournament. As I pointed out, the warning signs were there, we just chose to ignore them.

Now that reality has finally set in amongst England's passionate and hopeful fans, there remains confusion. it seems that no one is quite sure who to blame, with accusations being sprayed every which way. The typical gut reaction from fans is to blame the manager, and indeed there is much to criticise of the job that Fabio Capello has done with the England team.

The Manager

Capello came to England with promises that he would never pick out of form players, never pick players who weren't playing regularly at club level, and the astute observation that the England players were suffering some sort of psychological mental block that was preventing them from playing to their potential in big games, and he promised to get to the bottom of this. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he lost sight of these words, went on to pick out of form players, and people like Heskey who simply don't play at club level.

But it's his failure to fulfil that last guarantee that carries the biggest consequence. England players, more so perhaps than players from any other country, face absurd pressure from the media and from fans. It doesn't take a BSc in psychology to deduce that this pressure is related to the apparent mental block these players have, and so arguably the most important thing that an England manager needs to do is ease the pressure. But Capello, inexplicably, did the exact opposite.

Capello's entire management style seems to be based around keeping his players on their toes, from his icy demeanour around the players to his refusal to reveal lineups until the day of the match to his unceremonious dumping of Robert Green from the lineup. Capello wants to keep his players in doubt over their position in the team and constantly fighting for his approval, a tactic which may work well at club level, but is completely counter-productive in this high pressure situation. England's players, from Rooney to David James, to John Terry, have all hinted at the apparent discord between the players and the manager's style, as smiles were conspicuously absent on and off the pitch. This was clearly not a happy England camp.

Of course then there is the John Terry incident, which I have already discussed at length. In retrospect, this decision appears to be the turning point in Capello's England career. England played brilliantly during qualifying and in friendlies with John Terry as captain, but as soon as he was sacked the team fell apart, and we were absolutely dire in every single friendly after that, as well as in the tournament itself. Either this is an unbelievably unlikely coincidence, or it was a disastrous decision.

Let me make clear, this collapse has little or nothing to do with the relative abilities of Terry, Rio and Gerrard as captain. Indeed it's also implausible to suggest that the former captain's unethical actions alone caused this loss of spirit, the alleged affair took place in early 2009 and England continued to perform brilliantly for over a year after this. No, the instability in the camp only seems to have arisen in the past few months once Capello decided to allow the British media to dictate his team selection policy, and who could blame them? Time and time again we've seen England managers cave in to intense pressure from the media in terms of their management of the team, it's why Scolari refused the job after all, and when Capello stuck his neck out to strip John Terry of his captaincy, against unanimously strong objections from within the England camp, the players could only have felt a sickening sensation of deja vu.

Certainly, one can make the case that this is a problem with hiring foreign managers. After all surely an English manager would know the gutter press well enough not to let them influence the team. I know Sir Alex Ferguson is not English, but with his experience and deft handling of the media can you imagine him taking a similar action with his team? Of course not, it's a real morale killer to suggest that an England manager not only dignifies trashy tabloid fodder with his attention, but is willing to let it govern his decisions. Ferguson would have gone and done something completely outrageous and inflammatory in the media in order to direct attention away from his players, which is exactly what you want. On the contrary, Capello took unnecessary steps to shine the spotlight intensely on John Terry and make an example of him, basically setting the precedent that the British press has the power to bring down any England player's career; suddenly their lack of focus at the World Cup doesn't seem all that hard to understand, does it?

The Players

A lot of ire has been aimed at the players as well. Fans have lambasted the likes of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard as overpaid, overprivileged millionaires with more interest in maintaining their lucrative club contracts and sponsorship deals than representing England, for which they get no wages.

It's true, they have been awful; slow in both movement and mind, lacking in ideas and creativity, and many of them really beginning to show their age. Only Ashley Cole and James Milner leave this year's World Cup with any kind of credit to their names, although Lampard does get high marks for his efforts against Germany, including a wonder goal that was absurdly disallowed (he had a dire tournament other than that game however). People have begun to say that perhaps these English players are simply not as good as we think they are; lacking the technique to match more creative sides like Germany or Netherlands.

Well I certainly agree that English players, by and large, are massively overhyped, but otherwise I simply don't buy this excuse. For starters, England played very well indeed during qualification, I didn't imagine that. Secondly, as is often touted by apologists, these England players are fantastic for their clubs. But more important than any defence I can come up with for these England players is the blunt statement of fact that far worse players somehow do manage to play well at international level. Greece won Euro 2004 with a performance built entirely on staunch defending and direct movement, Italy won the World Cup in 2006 with a similarly uninspiring style of play.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that more often than not, the teams which play uninspiring, defensive football win. Just look at every team José Mourinho has managed. And how many times have you seen completely average players have fantastic tournaments? Kevin Prince Boateng has been one of the players of the tournament so far this year, even though he spends the rest of his time languishing in mediocrity for Portsmouth. So I'm sorry, but this theory holds no water with me.

The FA and the Premier League

The manager and players are not the only ones to blame for this fiasco. One thing you're going to see a lot of in the near future is blame for the FA and the entire grassroots system for player development in England.

In this regard I could not agree more. There are fundamental differences between how footballers are developed in this country as opposed to somewhere like Brazil or Netherlands. Training methods in this country are still very much outdated, focusing strongly on stamina and endurance training. Meanwhile in the Netherlands, children (starting at a much younger age) are simply given a football and told to express themselves, and their training programmes encourage this type of behaviour. The difference is plain for all to see, with a Holland team full of exquisitely gifted and creative footballers, vs an England team with the likes of Matthew Upson and Gareth Barry.

Not only are the methods archaic, but the infrastructure simply isn't there. The National Football centre in Burton has been languishing in limbo for over a decade and doesn't appear any closer to completion. It's a real problem, and who is going to invest in the necessary facilities?

The FA has serious financial difficulties right now, an after effect of years of wreckless and arrogant spending, not to mention the landmark £800 million cost of the new Wembley. Then there are the idiotic wages England managers are paid (Capello is paid £6 million per year, more than twice what any other international manager is paid, and the FA will have to pay £10 million in order to terminate his contract). Worse still, the FA's sponsorship and licensing contracts all run out this year, and will have been hoping for a strong World Cup performance to drive up the price. Add to that the recent turmoil of three high profile sackings in three months and it's clear that the FA is in no position to do anything to help English football, but it gets even worse.

In 1992, the FA allowed the most powerful clubs to run the top flight division in England, the Premier League. These clubs, understandably, have been running the league with their best interests in mind and in doing so have turned it into the biggest league in the world, and a highly lucrative asset. Job well done then, but the problem is that the interests of the domestic league are often at odds with the interests of the national team.

Money makes the world go round, and the Premier League hasn't become the most lucrative in the world by giving pity cash towards English player training, they've done it by attracting the biggest names in football from all over the world, and in the process stifling homegrown development.

This is a uniquely English situation, this dysfunctional antagonism between domestic football and the national team. The German, Dutch and Spanish Leagues, for example, work closely with their respective FA equivalents. Unfortunately it's hard to see anything changing here with so much money at stake.

The Fans and the Media

We are not without blame ourselves, each and every one of us. Wayne Rooney may have been out of line when he criticised fans for booing after that abject display against Algeria, but it comes from a real place. Far too many England fans have not given England the backing they deserve.

The media constantly try to undermine the team, knowing that it will sell papers. The fake sheikh in 2006 and John Terry in 2010 are both disgraceful examples of how dangerous an unscrupulous press can be.

Meanwhile the fans all too often refuse to leave petty club rivalries at home. The John Terry incident which could well have scuppered England's chances ahead of this world cup unfolded with glee among partisans who arbitrarily hate him and had been waiting for an excuse to get at him. People still boo Ashley Cole, one of the few players to actually perform at this year's tournament. And it's not all one way. I'm ashamed to say that there are many Chelsea fans I know who were thrilled with Rio Ferdinand's injury from the team after he stole the captaincy from Terry, and are licking their lips in anticipation for when Steven Gerrard's latest super injunction runs out.

It's completely and utterly pathetic. Football is a game, and club rivalry used to add a good natured spice to it, but if you really feel so consumed by such a pointless and petty hatred, so threatened by the notion of having your partisan mindset challenged that you have to carry it over to the national game, then there is something very wrong with you.

Bad Luck

At the same time, one has to be careful about these knee-jerk reactions in the heat of the moment. Yes England have been poor lately, yes Germany were much better than them, but at the same time they should have gone into half time of that game level, and can raise very reasonable questions over the influence that bad officiating has had on their fortunes. 2-0 down and looking completely lost, England staged a miraculous comeback, one of the all time greats, 2 goals in 5 minutes. It was the sort of moment that makes you proud to be English. But one historically bad call by the officials took that away from them. And they've gone from potential heroes to villains at very little fault of their own.

It doesn't take Diego Maradona to tell you that had the referees not made that inexplicable error, the game would have played out completely differently. England would have had the momentum and the confidence, while Germany would have been shaken.

Of course it's impossible to say what would have happened after that, with how well Germany played it's likely they would have won anyway. But one thing that we can say is that Germany would not have caught us on the counter attack for their two second half goals, after all they would not have been able to launch any such counter attack had we not undeservedly been forced into pushing for the equaliser.

England were certainly hard done by in that match, by all rights they should have been going into that second half in a very different position, with a very different mindset, but don't let that paper over the cracks of how shambolic this England team's preparation has been.

Bad Officials and FIFA Incompetence

There has been a real issue this World Cup with the quality of the officials. From the American goal vs Slovenia, to the England goal that never was, to the Argentina offside against Mexico, to the pathetic red cards against Brazil and Chile... the quality of officials at this tournament has been generally awful. I think FIFA ought to be ashamed of themselves for allowing such lax preparation on such a prominent stage.

Increasingly people call for the use of goal line technology, a completely unobtrusive and common sense move to make, and even instant replays, and yet FIFA continues to trot out tired and nonsensical excuses. "It will slow down the game too much" and "It's too unreliable" have made way for the laughable "Error is a part of the game".

That's right, FIFA is convinced that delegitimising the sport by undermining its own rules and leaving big gaps open for incompetence and corruption is crucial to the enjoyability of football. Or more accurately, Sepp Blatter thinks so.

You know Sepp Blatter right? That's the guy with 30 pages worth of corruption charges, the guy who tragically mishandled a player's death during a match and then used it for his own political gain, the guy who banned impoverished high altitude nations from playing at their home stadiums based on "health risks" without a single medical study to back him up.

Blatter is a corrupt, petty, racist, sexist relic from an age when "elected" officials were not held accountable for their words and actions. And many English football fans will remember his role in trying to ban English clubs from European football, as well as his long history of slander towards English football, its leagues and its clubs.

So do we add incompetence to the charges based on his mixed up ramblings with regards to the implementation of new technology? No, it's worse than that. As with most things in football, the real issue is money.

The simple fact of the matter is controversy sells. It's one of the central pillars of the media. Controversy leads to increased exposure, and greater advertising revenue. This is why News of the World loves its scandals, this is why Fox News loves to keep its audience angry and scared. I can tell you from my first hand experience with iFooty that advertising revenue skyrockets when something like this happens.

The reality is that if the referee yesterday had used an instant replay and awarded England the goal, people would not be obsessing and talking about it for days on end like they are now. This one error has at least doubled their revenue over the next few days. This has the added bonus of driving up the prices they can charge the television networks and video game companies for their licensing fees next year, human error makes those contracts more lucrative.

And then there is gambling, an entire industry built around the unpredictability of football. Do you really expect FIFA to take human error, one of the biggest causes of this unpredictability, out of the game? Less money for the gambling industry is less money for FIFA through advertising.

The long and short of it is that through these mechanisms, as well as doubtless many other interconnected ways in which television networks and digital data providers accrue wealth, a controversial incident is an extremely lucrative thing indeed. When you ask FIFA to remove this element from the sport, you're basically asking them to throw away easy money. It should come as no surprise to anyone that with someone like Blatter in charge, the integrity of the game takes a back seat in priority to its income potential.

The Future

So what does the future hold for English football? It's hard to say. The FA is in poor shape, and unless something drastically changes in the relationship between the Premier League and the national team, it's hard to see where any impetus or investment is going to come from in order to bring English football into the 21st century.

As long as this is the case, it's always going to be an uphill struggle for England, but by no means impossible to overcome despite what all the boo boys will be saying in the wake of this nightmare tournament.

Less than a year ago we were all singing praises of this England team and how Capello had turned them around. Remember that night in Croatia where we thrashed a strong side 4-1? This was a team full of spirited players playing for each other, with a brilliant manager at the helm guiding them. This was the same team we just saw flunk out of the World Cup finals, honest, the same players and the same manager.

So you can dismiss this English team as being full of bad players, with a bad manager if you like, but our recent performances simply disprove this. So what happened this summer that it all went so badly wrong again?

I think Capello really hit the nail on the head when he first took this job, saying that the England team was clearly suffering from some kind of mental block that was preventing them from performing under the intense pressure. Unfortunately somewhere along the way he completely forgot about this, and everything he has done in the past 6 months, from the Terry scandal, to Rob Green, to team selection and his poor relationship with the players, has only added to this problem.

Look at how England played during qualification. They can play together and play very well. You don't even need an expensive world renowned manager. You just need someone who can simultaneously hold the respect of the players and still relate to them, someone who understands the mood of the camp, which Capello clearly doesn't. Ultimately you need someone who has the balls to simply ignore the latest machinations of the media and play the team and tactics that will get the best out of these players.

The likes of John Terry and Steven Gerrard need to be taken out from under the magnifying glass and reminded that at the end of the day they only have to answer to themselves. Real distance needs to be placed between the world of football, and the world of football coverage in the media. One is business, the other is a melodramatic soap opera, and the two are dangerously confused in this country. Players need to be reassured that their careers aren't one small stumble away from disaster when they pull on an England shirt, and most importantly they need to remember how to actually enjoy their football.

In order for this to happen we need a manager, an English manager, who understands the motivations and deviousness of the gutter press in this country and knows how to ignore them. We need a manager who knows what's in the mind of these players and how to keep them focused and happy, someone familiar with the England camp. Gentlemen, we need to take a risk.

Throwing another multi-million pound contract at some wily, "been there done that" manager is not going to fix a damn thing. Mark my words, if we hire Hodgson or Redknapp, good managers though they may be, we will be right back here in four years time, with the lucky man being sent to the unemployment line with a big fat cheque in his hands.

Look at the success of Argentina with Maradona, Germany with Klinsmann, Holland with Van Basten, Brazil with Dunga. At club level look at the success of Rijkaard and Guardiola at Barcelona. Experience really isn't everything. If the FA are wise they will go a similar route and appoint someone young, someone fresh, an ex player with a strong connection to this England camp.

There has been buzz in the papers recently about the likes of Beckham, but frankly I think we're missing the obvious choice. What about Alan Shearer? Unlike Beckham, this is a man with actual coaching (and even brief managerial) experience, but still recent enough to know what makes the team tick.

Still think I'm crazy? Look at the teams that are setting the world alight at this very tournament, how many of them have experienced managers? How many of their managers are sitting their first ever managerial post? A lot of them, as it turns out. I submit that it's far more important to have a man who understands the players, the set up, the context and the country at the helm than one who has experience in very different jobs.

In terms of the players, I dare say this is the end of the line for most of them. I think it's high time we started focusing on youth. The likes of Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and James Milner will stick around, hopefully Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon will finally find some consistency and fitness, but otherwise I'm not sure that any of these players should be in the team for World Cup 2014. It's time to focus more on the next generation.

In goal we will have the likes of Joe Hart, an amazing prospect. From the games I've seen him play these past two years, and the friendly appearances for England, I can honestly say I haven't felt this safe with anyone between the sticks since David Seaman. Finally I think we have an heir to the Seaman throne.

Certainly Jack Rodwell will be a part of this team, at the age of 20 I'd already welcome him with open arms to the Chelsea squad, a real talent that lad.

The likes of Agbonlahor and Ashley Young will hopefully have taken their game to the next level by then. But beyond that it's hard to see who the next wave will be. Perhaps in four years time we'll be talking about Shawcross, Cattermole, Huddlestone, maybe even Daniel Sturridge, possibly the most talented young English striker I've seen since Wayne Rooney. How about Jack Wilshere?

But ultimately, I fear that the greatest threat England will have to beat comes from within. As long as we have a fanbase divided between supporting the country and relishing the failures of club rival players, we will not succeed. As long as we have a shameless and unscrupulous media looking for any opportunity to score cheap points off anyone who dares take the limelight, particularly one that can actually influence the England manager, we will not succeed.

This England team has a great many issues to deal with; from an ageing and mentally fragile team, to a manager who simply has no idea how to get these players into the right mindset, to a fan base with divided loyalties, a far too powerful media, to an outdated and archaic player development programme and a messy, antagonistic relationship between what remains of the FA and the indifferent Premier League.

If we can fix all that, then we might just have a shot.

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