England are out – finished, end of story. We did not go out on penalties, nor were we “very unlucky”. We were well beaten by a team that were man for man better than us. The Media may cry foul about Lampard’s goal, or the fact our pampered players play too much football, but isn’t it time we simply faced up to the fact that actually we are not as good as we like to believe?
Football is all about reputation. We qualified from a “tough” group featuring Croatia and Ukraine – both deemed to be “tough” teams to beat. But were they really? Croatia had humbled us in November 2007 to qualify for the European Championships but 10 months later we humbled them in Zagreb – what changed in the intervening months? Nothing much. When Wigan Athletic beat Chelsea earlier in the season at the DW Stadium did anyone really expect them to beat Chelsea again come the end of the season at Stamford Bridge? Not really, and the result showed us otherwise.
Our whole way of playing, developing, coaching, managing, and reporting on football in England is wrong. We will simply continue to suffer the pain we saw yesterday as each tournament comes around. Why? Because we are an island race and our thinking is so insular.
Who has the best league in the world? Many will say the Premier League. Sky Sports will ram slo-mo 3D HD clips down our throat until the cows come home but we should be looking to our victors last night for the business model that works for all parties. Fans gets to see their teams in stadiums designed with them in mind and prices that would make some Blue Square Conference teams blush, they get to see attacking football played by players who have been given the opportunity to develop through their youth systems. TV games are rigidly structured in advance so that every one knows who is playing when and the media knows when to start and stop building the hype and intruding.
Let’s look at this youth issue again. A year ago I sat in the Swedbank Stadion in Malmo and saw our Under 21 team under Stuart Pearce ripped apart by Germany. The star of the show that night was Mesut Özil. Since then a total of 9 of the German squad have gone on to represent the senior team and 6 of them were included in the squad for the World Cup, and 4 lined up against up last night – Özil, Kehdira, Neuer and Boatang. Two goal scorer Muller wasn’t even selected for the tournament!
Compare that to England. Only James Milner played a year ago from the team last night. Joe Hart was suspended and out of our squad only Adam Johnson and Gabby Agbonlahor have been included in the senior squad since. Many of the players who today play at Under 21 level in England are simply never given the chance to progress their career at a club level. The “current” squad includes 4 players from Chelsea, 2 from Arsenal, 2 from Spurs and then the rest from around the leagues. But how much Premier League experience (or European football to say that) will the likes of Jack Cork and Bertrand get at Stamford Bridge or Kyle Walker and Kyle Naughton at Spurs?
I became a realist England fan about 18 months ago. I missed only two away games (excluding the farce in Trinidad & Tobago) in over 5 years and during that period bought my numerous away shirts, was fleeced by my own FA over things such as ticket prices (more expensive to watch a friendly v Slovenia at Wembley than the competitive game against Croatia for instance, or the 300% mark up on the home versus away tickets in Moscow in October 2007) and even turned out on a number of occasions for the official England Fans Veterans team.
However, I was never your getting pissed in the Irish bar, singing “No Surrender” and actually thinking that our players cared about playing for their country. And I was not alone. Slowly a group of disenfranchised fans started missing games, tired of seeing the same lack of urgency and lethargy from our so called stars, who if they actually felt like it would come over at the end of the game and clap once or twice. Anyone who remembers how the players demanded a coach to take them 200 yards from the hotel to stadium in Minsk so as to avoid the fans, or the incidents after the games in Skopje and Zagreb will know they wanted no part of being in the England show.
So we cannot start to improve our prospects unless we go back to the grass roots. Developing players with the long term in mind. Allowing our home grown talent to actually play at the top level instead of constantly bringing in journeymen from overseas. Thinking about tomorrow instead of today.
But one area that has to take some responsibility for all of the media attention is the media itself. The amount of press that went to South Africa was just embarrassing. All of them are looking for a “story”, an angle that will differentiate themselves from the other hacks. So the more salubrious they can make their copy, the more they can claim it is an exclusive. As soon as the Germans were identified as our opponents you knew full well that the tabloids would start up the Jingoism machine and start pumping out references to Dads Army. Thank God we didn’t get to play Argentina in the next round is all I can say as comfort.
But these newspapers are read by the fans who genuinely believe we are the best team in the World. Anyone who saw our performance against USA should have known we were in trouble. Robert Green, interestingly along with David James, is the most educated player in the squad and had the balls to come out immediately after the game and take the blame – a fact that the serious writers in the media have appreciated for years (see Danny Last’s excellent interview with Henry Winter about this very subject here) but other players will go out of their way to avoid having to deal with the press.
The world and his wife were sent to South Africa but why? Why did the BBC feel the need to send their sport newsreader to South Africa to tell us about Wimbledon? Why did BBC Radio 5 live base themselves out there? Its not like we could actually see them on the radio? And what was the point of Gabby Logan? Faced with a perfect opportunity to ask Capello some difficult questions after the game on Sunday she simply asked him niceties about the weather and about why Stuart Pearce wasn’t wearing the same as him like Joachim Low and his assistant had. The players were equally bored and there was simply no stories to be had. Interestingly enough if you look back to 2006 the criticism of the team was that the WAG’s were distracting them. That was not the case it was just that the players were so bored and not allowed to do anything that the only thing of interest was the activities of a group of girls.
Premier League footballers today earn obscene amounts of money for what they do. There is no doubt that there are equally talented players throughout the land who for one reason or another, never get the chance to play at the top level, just like for every Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, there are actors treading the boards in local theatres who simply have not had the “shot at the big time”. The players are also so regimented as to what they can and cannot do. They are young men – they want to have a beer and have a laugh not be allowed one half of shandy every other night and a 30 minute slot on the X-Box. What happens when they get together? They can hardly talk about their travels seeing as they all end up in the same place, or places they have been out, as they aren’t allowed such freedom. So does it turn into a pissing competition as to who has the best car, the girlfriend with the best fake tits (John Terry apparently is the best person to ask) or the best salary? I suspect so – and when this happens what effect does it have on your James Milner’s or your Glenn Johnson’s when he is playing alongside someone who is on twice as much as himself?
The FA took over 40 non-playing members in the squad to South Africa. Surely someone should have been in charge of organising some events to take the mind off the boredom that the squad faced? When the Rugby Union’s British and Irish Lions tour the squad appoint a social committee from within their own number who organise all events as well as keeping an eye on everyone for tell tale signs of boredom. If a player is bored off the pitch, he sure will be bored on it too.
So there you have it….We are a nation cheated if you believe the press. But are we really? Or do we live in a false world where we hype our players up as God’s and then smash them down when they appear to be mortal. We all have to take some responsibility for this – the press, the fans, the management and of course the players. So let’s just move on shall we and learn our lesson and keep our traps shut in four years time in Poland and Ukraine. And please – anyone who decides to re-release Three Lions – you will be shot on sight!