Saturday, May 31, 2014

England’s Inevitable World Cup Failure Bingo!

Let the autopsy begin! With the mighty Peru brushed aside we can now turn our attention to the World Cup and England’s inevitable failure. Yes, I know I shouldn’t pre-judge the outcome of the tournament, but come on! This is England. In-ger-land. At the World Cup. There’s a set format for how this works. We all know it. It’s tradition.

We’ve already had Roy Hodgson dampen expectation during a press conference at Vauxhall. “We have a strong group of players, but it’s going to be difficult,” he said, reading from the notes Fabio Capello prepared four years ago. “There are a lot of very good teams in the tournament.” Next up are the pull-out supplements, the endless countdowns of top players and great moments, and adverts for shampoo starring Joe Hart. Because nothing stops the whispers of “dodgy keeper” quite like dandruff-free hair. Then, just as Adrian Chiles starts slapping on the factor 50, white van men and taxi drivers up and down the land will provide the bunting industry with a much needed boost by attaching little flags to every bumper, grill and mirror.

Before long the whole country is caught in the grips of World Cup fever – even those poor fools that pretend like they don’t give a toss. The politicians will jump aboard the band wagon: Dave will wish “our boys” all the best, Boris will squeeze himself into an England shirt again, Gove will tell us that the teaching of any year other than 1966 has been banned from the GCSE history curriculum. The England team will put in three average performances and squeak through to the second round. Andy Townsend will tell the world, “P’raps, just p’raps, the lads are starting to believe.” At which point the team will implode and be knocked out of the tournament courtesy of the obligatory penalty shoot-out fiasco.

As the last spot-kick disappears into the Brazilian night sky, sports journalists will start picking over the bones, scrabbling around to explain yet another oh-so-early World Cup exit. So, dear reader, I invite you to see how many of my predicted excuses can be crossed off from your card in this exciting game of England’s Inevitable World Cup Failure Bingo!

Every paper will moan that the heat in the Amazon prevented England from playing their high-tempo pressing game, but only The Mirror will claim that Frank Lampard said, “It’s like a jungle out there.” The Daily Mail will combine incoherent football analysis with rampant misogyny by blaming England’s failure on the players’ wives and girlfriends while simultaneously running a WAG sidebar of shame special. Someone will blame the hotel for being too noisy, someone else will blame the food for being too foreign. You can expect to see complaints about the refereeing, the travel, the length of the grass and the shape of the ball.

Of course Roy Hodgson will take a fair amount of flak – football is after all one of the few professions where managers can be expected to shoulder any responsibility for a dire performance. The ‘serious’ papers will castigate Hodgson for his tactical conservatism, bemoaning the outdated notion of “two banks of four”. In typically crass fashion the Star will run a piece with the headline “Woy Wage”, making light of the minor speech impediment of a man fluent in five languages. The Scum will go straight for a suitable villain, probably Luis Suarez, and publish an article blurring the line between overt racism and mere spitefulness. We’ll all denounce it but still find ourselves thinking, “well, Suarez does have form…” And we’ll all feel a little dirty.

No doubt some will take the time to lament the passing of the Golden Generation of England players, the dying embers of which will finally fade in Brazil. There was always just the faintest echo of New Labour about the Golden Generation.  They were bright and shiny and new, youthful, full of promise and – to the casual observer – destined to achieve great things. After a decade you would struggle to think of even the occasional bright spot, maybe the minimum wage, or the 5-1 win in Germany, but ultimately you were left with a profound feeling of disappointment. It didn’t help that neither had many decent options on the left-wing. They were so unbalanced that people you’d normally expect to see out on the right were suddenly spotted out on the left, Steven Gerrard, James Milner, Keiron Dyer, Roy Hattersley… But I digress.

The one excuse you can expect to see in every single paper is, of course, the number of foreign players in the Premier League. “They’re all coming over here,” the Daily Express will cry, “and taking our young footballers’ jobs.” Every paper will publish statistics showing that only 39% of the players in the Premiership are eligible to play for England, and you’ll see the term “influx” used so often that you’ll begin to doubt whether it’s a word at all. In response to the media hysteria surrounding this “influx of foreign players”, Greg Dyke will appoint Nigel Farage as the chair of a new FA commission looking into the future of English football, before withdrawing Tottenham from the Europa League on the grounds that UEFA boss, Michel Platini, is trying to straighten his banana.

Unfortunately some sports journalists have tailed – and occasionally surpassed – their news desk colleagues in seeing immigration as the root of the nation’s ills. Whether it’s the state of NHS, or unemployment, or the failures of the England football team those ‘bloody foreigners’ are an easy scapegoat. Even if it simply is not true. If there really is a correlation between the number of foreign players in the Premier League and the success of the national team, then you would expect to see England performing well when the proportion of foreign players in the country was low. But if you roll the clock back twenty years, to a time when 70% of the players in the top flight were eligible to play for England, you’ll find that the team failed to even qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

In their book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Symanzski make the case that players from overseas have, in fact, been hugely beneficial to the quality of the English game, bringing with them new techniques, tactics and ideas. They also argue that England, for a nation of its size, has actually performed relatively well at major tournaments. But, as always seems to be case when we are talking about immigration, few let facts or logic get in the way of a good old right wing rant.

Part of the problem is that some commentators confuse quantity and quality. If the Premier League was comprised entirely of English players, all of whom had the grace and style of Carlton Palmer, then the national team would still fail miserably. A quick glance at the England World Cup squad shows that where English players are good enough – Sterling, Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain – they get game time. At this point you have to start asking bigger questions about why so few players reach that standard. Why does junior coaching prioritise competition over technique? Why does the national footballing culture value ‘bottle’ and ‘heart’ over skill and flair? Sadly, the answers don’t generate the kind of easy headlines that the FA seems so desperately to desire. And heaven help ya if you start talking about money.

In between sending sexist emails, Premiership chief Richard Scudamore has found time to preside over an unprecedented increase in wealth for the top clubs. Manchester City currently shells out £5.3 billion a year in wages, making their side the highest paid sports team anywhere in the world. Not that the riches of the Premier League are restricted to the players. The average chief executive at a top-flight club can expect a salary more than 50% greater than those in similar positions at non-football businesses of a similar size. And this wealth is more concentrated at the top of the football pyramid than ever before; the notion of trickledown economics as much of a sham in sports as is in the rest of society.

Ever since the Premier League began in 1992, money – particularly from television deals – has flooded in at the top of the game and is now at an extraordinary level. Yet for all the cash sloshing around the era has been marked by debt and insecurity. The amount of football clubs – both league and non-league – to have suffered “insolvency events” in this period now runs well into three figures. If even a fraction of the wealth to be found at the top could have found its way down the leagues then football would be in a much healthier state. Yet the relationship between the Premier League and the rest of football is deliberately structured to prevent any such redistribution. For the sake of rampant profiteering the Premier League has forsaken the grassroots of the game.

This is all being exacerbated by the government’s continued response to the recession. Recently Kelly Simmons, the FA’s director of the national game, has attacked the “austerity measures” pursued by the ConDem Coalition:
“We have raised our concerns in government but we have to face the fact that local authorities, who have been such a big investor and provider of football facilities, are taking huge hits in their budgets under the austerity measures. If we don’t tackle this and work with local authorities this is going to impact football for the next 50 years.”
The debate around English football has an all too familiar ring to it. The closer you look at the national malaise, footballing or economic, the clearer you can see that the problems are the same: the rule of the super-rich, the lack of investment, the belief in austerity. And still the likes of Cameron, Farage and Dyke tell us that the problem is the ‘foreigners’ and expect us to swallow the line, like shaking a set of keys at a toddler to distract them whilst mum and dad steal all the biscuits. So when England come crashing out of the World Cup and the knee-jerk reactions begin, just stop and ask yourself how much trust you can really place in these people. The answer, I’m afraid, is sweet FA.