England’s U20s achieved the greatest feat since 1966 to raise our spirits for the future of our national game. Two weeks later the U21s brought us back to earth, by reminding us that we simply cannot beat the Germans on penalties.
It could be argued that 1966 was the worst year in English football history. Since that day at Wembley, we have placed our national team on a pedestal; the inventors of football, and the rightful kings. Rubbish. The truth is, we have been prolific at inventing games and sports for the world to enjoy (and from which to profit), but we are simply unable to drag football forward in our direction. It has been up to other nations to push the game to new heights: Brazil from 1958-1970, then during the 90s until 2002; Germany have simply always been there or there about (five World Cup titles); Argentina during the late 70s and 80s; Italy are always there or there about (four World Cup titles); more recently we have seen Spain dominate the European and World stage.
So why is it that we continue to fail in major tournaments? This debate can be heard in public houses across the country, and has lined the pockets of numerous landlords. Fear of failure? Weak managers? Dictatorial managers? Foreign managers? Archaic formations? Ill-suited formations? These are all reasons overheard in any debate. Another hot on the lips, especially since the inauguration of the Premier League, is the lack of opportunity for young English talent in the domestic top flight. Although it could be said that all the above reasons contribute, a genuine pathway for English players is quickly becoming a thing of the past – the Premier League has the highest proportion of foreign players of all the European leagues (69.2%).
We should take Chelsea as an example. I dismay at the amount of English talent being used as assets rather than players, and for that matter human beings. Where is the pathway to the first team? In the last nine seasons Chelsea’s youth team has won the youth FA Cup six times, the UEFA Youth League twice, and the U18 Premier League once. What more can you do to stake a claim for a first team berth?
Money talks and the Premier League has brushed the FA aside. It can be said that foreign ownership of our teams has driven up the spending on foreign players (and spending in general). But this has been a long time coming. In 2003/04 there were 3 foreign owned clubs (Fulham; Manchester United; Portsmouth), now there is at least partial foreign investment in 15 of the 20, with Brighton, Burnley, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Stoke the other five. I am not presenting these facts in order to profess some kind of nationalistic ideal for our game. The fact that the owners are foreign is essentially immaterial. The real issue is that the Premier League has pushed their product so far as to eclipse the interests of the national side.
Despite all these valid contributing factors, what I must say is that the English national team has failed, particularly in my lifetime, from a complete lack of bottle; last summer’s exploits being a prime example. Almost exactly a year ago England hit rock-bottom. Losing to Iceland was a new low for a team who have become perennial losers. We looked lost on the pitch, out-fought and out-thought.
It is almost provided as an off-hand comment to say English players lack heart, as come a summer tournament we rediscover our fanaticism. However, the proof is in the pudding. Italia ’90: Germany on penalties; Euro ’96: Germany on penalties; France ’98: Argentina on penalties; Euro ‘04: Portugal on penalties; World Cup ’06: Portugal on penalties; Euro 2012: Italy on penalties.
Such feeble exits, and I haven’t even mentioned the non-qualifications (World Cup ’94, Euro ’08), are often attributed to the manager and his tactics (bar Sir Bobby Robson), but where is the leadership on the pitch? Where is the know-how? There are so many flaws to the system and conflicting interests – where do we start the reparation?