Friday, November 23, 2007

England all played out again

The Emperor has no clothes and it’s official.

For the first time within the walls of the awesome citadel that is the new Wembley Stadium, the English national team has come a cropper in a big way, and this time there can be no hiding from the naked truth.

Now let these sombre words ring out across our green and pleasant land: England are a mediocre football nation and it’s high time we accepted it.

One final appearance in 57 continuous years of international football competitions tells its own story and cannot by any logic justify the perennial Mount Everest of expectations heaped upon the Three Lions.

As the 3-2 victory over England by a competent yet not exceptional Croatian eleven on Wednesday proved once more, there is simply no case for believing we deserve a place at the high table of the world’s football nations, so please don’t try to make it.

After such a miserable and humiliating surrender, can anyone seriously believe we can win the 2010 World Cup? Will the patriotic punters be out in force again to waste their money, like they have for the last forty years since we won the World Cup at home?

That the English invented the sport and still sustain a 92-team professional league is utterly immaterial if the national team consistently fails to perform, yet year after year, an inferno of fan fervour is stoked up by London’s boorish tabloid media with no basis in reality.

But the media is only partly to blame for the unrealistic expectations and to a great extent is only a mirror of the national zeitgeist.

The obscenely ballooning waistline of the cash cow that is the FA Premier League is also only reinforcing an existing tunnel vision shared by millions throughout the home of football.

There is a foreign influx in our leagues and globalization all around us, but it clearly does not follow that a great domestic league can produce a world-class national team.

So who do we blame this time?

The usual suspects for the latest shambles are lining up and while they all shoulder a part of the blame, are mostly red herrings while the prime suspect is still at large.

Steve McClaren is not the main culprit and I take no pride in having predicted as soon as he was appointed that he would fail.

Although guiding your club to 15th place in the Premier League is not the best preparation for coaching your country, McClaren had served apprenticeships under Alex Ferguson and Sven-Goran Eriksson and there were no realistic alternatives for England last summer.

While some fans are slating McClaren for starting with 4-5-1 at home, without Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney his striking options were limited and when reinforcements did arrive in the shape of Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe, the much-needed punch up front was still lacking.

In fact, the catalyst for England’s comeback was the arrival of David Beckham, in perhaps his last national team appearance, after halftime, a player from Major League Soccer who provided an artistry and finesse with the ball otherwise lacking from his team on the night.

The English players’ superstar salaries are almost irrelevant too. Serie A pays huge wages but that never stopped Italy’s national team winning the World Cup impressively last summer. And English players certainly do not lack passion. If anything, they play with too much heart and not enough head, yet England critics routinely bemoan a lack of passion and self-belief as the reasons for falling short.

That there may be too many foreign players in England for the national team’s good is also an argument that looks shakier by the day. In fact, on the evidence of last night, no wonder Arsene Wenger shops overseas.

The dissections and post mortems on the corpse of England’s latest failure are everywhere, though few have realised the fatal disease is merely an inherited and myopic attitude that the English way is best.

Like Charybdis, the fearsome whirlpool of Greek mythology, our semi-permanent debate on the national team ends up going round in circles of self-delusion, our consistent demand for unrealistic success devouring all passing managers lured too close to the job.

This insular hara-kiri was evident off the field as well as on. Thousands of England fans pointedly ignored the Wembley announcer’s request to respect both national anthems by booing Croatia’s loudly, before revelling in taunting the traveling fans with several renditions of ‘You’re not singing anymore’, only to be confounded as supersub Mladen Petric speared a spectacular 25-yard winner with 13 minutes remaining.

‘Rule Britannia’ is still one of our favourite songs, but its boasting of global dominance had a particularly pathetic ring at Wembley last night, a specious self-aggrandizement amid the carnival of English obsolescence on the field.

Sheltering from the Wembley monsoon while the queues to the tube station still stretched down Bobby Moore Way a full hour after the final whistle, I got talking to some Croatian fans, who gave me some refreshing points of view on our particular malaise.

The heavens were downright miserable, but there was some blue-sky thinking to be found beneath the deluge.

“England has good players, but they don’t play as a team,” thought Branko from Dubrovnik.

“You’re right,” I said, “but we don’t know any different.” Contrary to some opinions aired this week, England can produce great talents.

I could reel off names such as Bobby Charlton, Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews, but from more recently, what about John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker and Chris Waddle from the 1980s and David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Owen and Rooney from the ‘90s.

“Your style is twenty years behind the times,” offered Zlatko from Mostar. “You hit long high balls to the big forward, Crouch. We know that is what the English do. It is simple to play against.”

“Well Crouch did score tonight,” I offered in defence, but I broadly agreed with his analysis.

“Look at the Germans,” said Goran from near Split. “They work hard the whole time too, but they do it as a team.”

I then racked my brains for times in my life when England have played with great fluidity and got stuck on a handful of occasions: In the latter stages of Italia ’90, for the first half of a friendly against Mexico in 2001, against Italy in Rome in 1997 and most famously smashing the Netherlands 4-1 at Wembley in Euro ’96 and Germany 5-1 in Munich five years later.

Our national style still leans towards passionate and direct attacking – ‘droit au but’ –‘straight to goal’, as the motto of Marseille says. And we have to change this mindset, wholesale, from the grass roots up, if we want to challenge for international trophies.

One final in 57 years of FIFA and UEFA competition is surely proof there is a hairline fracture in the monolith of the Football Association, a lingering faultline that cannot and should not be attributed to any particular coach or set of players.

The one excuse I didn’t hear on the tortuous journey from the Wembley mega-arena back to my home in North London was perhaps the most obvious one: Croatia were just better than us.

“Wake up,” Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said succinctly post-match. “We’re simply a better team.”

They undoubtedly were the superior side, having defeated England home and away in the qualification campaign, yet I still heard a fan moaning that England had played badly and lost to ‘a shit team’. ‘Yeah, they are a shit team,’ echoed his equally dim friend.

Well, relativism aside, any team who tops a UEFA qualification group cannot by any sound reasoning be made of caca.

The Croats gave England a footballing lesson in both Zagreb and London in soaking up pressure, throwing bodies into attack or defense appropriately, counter-attacking and shooting from distance.

But what really stood out for me at Wembley was their outfield players’ superior technique.

The Croats’ creed is possession, like it is for all great football nations, while England still go for broke in the final third and try to hit that killer ball into the channels or lump it onto the head of that big lad in the box, too often finding their optimistic punts intercepted or overhit instead.

On the night, Shaun-Wright Phillips typified what is wrong with English football. Energetic and brimming with passion, the Chelsea winger charged goalward whenever he was given the ball, but too often his ardour burned out as he mishit a cross, collided with a defender or ran the ball out of play.

Time and again, England played without any telepathy when they managed to get the ball near the opponents’ box, while every Croatian tap, layoff or backheel seemed to be wired to an incoming teammate.

The Croats clearly knew how to counter-attack better than we did, sprinting upfield, stretching our retreating defence and hitting first-time passes to runners without hesitation. They built a shape-shifting, multi-dimensional game which defeated our rigid, one-dimensional structure with ease.

We might lazily lump all Eastern European football nations together as tough, former communist, crack army sides from chilly lands, but remember Croatia, like Romania, is essentially a Mediterranean country whose warm weather breeds skilful ballplayers.

Facing Italy across the Adriatic, Croatia has only been a country since 1991 and with a population of under five million, has in that short space of time, produced stars of the calibre of Zvonimir Boban, Alen Boksic, Robert Prosinecki and Davor Suker.

Yet however you compare the two countries, England should be a far better football nation than Croatia.

Once again, I fear we will skirt around the answer to our ills – a complete and radical overhaul of the coaching culture.

The intangibility of the problem and its equally nebulous solution just discourage us from addressing it properly, and so England stumble to under-achievement every time.

It almost seems a treasonable offense to the Anglo-Saxon virtues ingrained in our national game to tell our kids to keep the ball instead of to ‘get it in there!’, to think about their shape and position instead of to ‘get stuck in lad!’ and to bring others into attack instead of to ‘go on your own, son, have a pop!’ etc.

The continental method does seem anathema to a windy Sunday morning league game in Rotherham, but ask yourself who is the more successful soccer nation – Italy or England?

‘Look at Arsenal,’ Zlatko continued. ‘They have a great coach and play in a European style but are an English team’.

Treating football seriously from a young age also draws us into a political debate we would rather steer clear of, that of mass education’s historic lack of importance in England in general.

If we want well trained footballers, we need well educated players, who understand the professional commitment and the intellectual ability the game demands at the highest level.

‘What about Wayne Rooney?’ you holler. Nothing can compensate for raw talent like his, surely; only to a point. Imagine what Gascoigne could have done with the self-discipline of a Zinedine Zidane, or how Rooney could prosper with the spatial awareness of strikers like Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry or Henrik Larsson.

On the train home, there was no anger, nor misery at England’s premature exit from Euro 2008, just a resigned mood, an unspoken acceptance that we have seen it all before.

I really felt that maybe for the first time, an accommodation of our ineptitude had begun to set in with the fans, a growing acceptance of the obvious mediocrity we have been dealing with for years.

Make no mistake. This umpteenth failure for England will not be the last, unless we do start again from the grass roots, bite the bullet and admit the FA’s manuals are mistaken in many ways and our coaching outdated.

Or, we can bury our heads in the sand once more, blame Steve McClaren or whoever underperformed last night and come 2010, summon up the blood to bellow from the rooftops our belief that England can win the World Cup, if only we the fans and they the players want it enough.

Unless there is a revolution, the future history of the England team writes itself.

All may not be lost however. As I traipsed down the many steps from Wembley’s upper tier, and some fans began to sing ‘Jose Mourinho’, I began to think that the foreign influx in our game could end up being the solution instead of the problem, whoever the next coach may be. The tide of the world game is all around us now, at home and abroad.

And what is for sure is that England’s national football culture, more than ever, is all played out.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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