Ryder Cup 2018 was an annihilation – US need game to go global

The 2018 Ryder Cup was in some ways the most one-sided since the current format (28 matches with Europe) was introduced in 1979.

Europe in fact won 29 more holes than the United States (more than one per individual match), the biggest gap ever under the format. Typically, a gap of that nature would have seen the largest ever match score, of around 19-9. In other words, 17-10 was comprehensive – but actually kind to the Americans.

In this sense, the competition has changed and now Europe is unquestionably the dominant team. In five Ryder Cups staged in Europe this century, not only have the Americans lost all five but they have in fact been thrashed four times.

This is different from thirty years ago or so when, even though Europe won on several occasions, the Americans were still in general equal to or even better than their opponents. In fact, from 1987 thru 1999, the Americans actually won more holes in every single Cup (even though they lost three times out of seven and tied once). What was happening then was that the Americans were in fact scoring marginally better, but the Europeans performed better under pressure in clutch situations (thus tending to win the huge majority of close matches).

It remains a quirk that Europe has never lost the Ryder Cup having won more holes, but has quite often won or at least retained it while losing more.

With the extraordinary exception of 2012 (the Miracle or Meltdown at Medinah, depending on your view) when the Americans actually won in terms of holes more heavily than they had since 1981 but contrived to lose overall, this century has belonged clearly to the European side no matter how you calculate it, and is becoming more so. The team which has won more holes has also won the Cup on every single occasion otherwise (and that has been Europe six times in eight) and the overall match score has rarely been close (whereas the previous seven and eight of the previous nine had been settled by two overall match points or fewer).

Why is this? The most obvious reason, which has already been discussed, is that the American locker room had a reminder to “leave egos at the door” but as ever it was the Europeans who actually did so. Tied to this is, however, the potential reason that the Americans are not actually as good as the rankings suggest.

We should remember that three of the four majors and most of the other biggest tournaments (world championship events, the Tour Championship etc) are hosted in the United States. These carry the highest ranking points, with Americans having an in-built advantage of playing at home.

The Americans have to consider, therefore, whether it would be good for the global game and even for their own Ryder Cup team if more high-ranking events (including all World Golf Championship events and quite possibly the PGA Championship) were hosted away from the United States. This would take Americans out of their comfort zone if they want to earn the big rankings points, and would get them used to playing away from home. Such a move would surely then give them the experience required so that no future United States team goes an entire generation without winning a Ryder Cup in Europe…

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Worst thing Brexit demonstrates? Rampant “classism”

I still intend to make very little political comment on this blog, as there is very little more about it to say. Any rational person can see that the English-speaking world has succumbed to crazed populism, and every further issue – from what to do about mobile roaming charges to how to restore the Northern Ireland Executive, derives from that basic problem.

However, for me the most appalling thing brought home by all of this in the UK has been the British media’s rampant classism (is that a word? It is now).

Ultimately, there used to be a basic deal with the media that they would report the words of senior MPs because it was reasonable to assume they carried some expert weight. Perhaps this deal was always an illusion. Now, it is obviously ridiculous.

Almost all of the Conservative back-bench MPs given prominence by the media on the subject of Brexit speak with upper-class accents. Not one has a single iota of expertise to offer on the subject. Nor will any suffer the consequences.

So why are they covered? At all?

Indeed, last week, a “research report” from a group of them was covered as lead story on the news. It is a basic fact that the report was complete rubbish. That fact was not reported.

In fact, it was reported rather ludicrously that “economists [plural, even though only one was cited] see benefits of Brexit” and that a “customs expert [one Dutch lad whose actual experience was never outlined” had been involved in some research about technology. Actually not a single economist believes Brexit will cause anything other than damage to the UK economy; indeed, not a single person with even an ounce of common sense (quite obviously if your main competitors can trade freely and you can’t, you will be at a disadvantage). Not a single customs expert believes customs frontiers can be managed solely through “technology”, and again anyone thinking about it can see why not and understands that not a single customs frontier works that way with good reason.

Why, therefore, are MPs with no expertise and no basic understanding of society wheeled out and given priority by the media for comment? The common link is that they all speak with upper-class accents.

Underlying this, therefore, is the notion that because someone speaks with an upper-class accent, they must have something expert to contribute (and conversely, that those who do not speak with such an accent should not be given priority and should therefore yield the air waves to those who do). This is plainly not the case. In fact, in the case of Brexit, those given such priority have not the first clue what they are talking about – zero experience, zero expertise, and actually zero interest (the outcome is of no concern to them after all).

They also tend to be men, by the way. Indeed, referendum coverage saw men given 84% of the air time. Is that not a scandal?

It would make for a much more interesting public debate if MPs you constantly hear of were not given priority media coverage, and instead others – with different accents, and a few women – actually were. You may then receive real expert input, and encourage a meaningful discussion.

As it is, the media continue to report this as an upper-class soap opera. We have Downton Abbey for that. The issues around Brexit are of profound concern to millions of people. We need a proper debate, involving people who actually know what they are talking about. Is that not what we pay the licence fee for?

Glider will work – but not always for rational reasons

Last Friday I had some work to do and I was in the eastern part of Belfast City Centre. I decided to do it in a coffee shop – in Ballyhackamore.

Why? Well, because I could via the new Glider. I would do it again too – I met three people I knew while there and that led to some useful additional points for the research work I was doing. Ballyhackamore is a hub – and it will only become more so because it is now so obviously easy to get to.

It is not, of course, that it wasn’t already easy to get to. The Glider, as one traveller put it on the BBC, “is only a bus at the end of the day”. The reason it will succeed is more emotional than rational.

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Ultimately, the basic reason may be the simple map above. Compared to the Belfast Metro (Citybus) network, it is a lot simpler. People choosing locations to go, as I was, will choose from the map. Next week I may well choose the Kennedy Centre; the following Dundonald; and so on.

Comfort matters too. The bus is newer and more spacious – for example, people can bring on prams at off-peak times without any disturbance, as they could on a train but not on a double decker.

Part of it is pure branding. I overheard one child expressing delight at the very notion of “gliding”.

This is not to discount the rational reasons for liking it, from the at-level platforms to the USB ports. But in the end it plays to emotion rather than reason. For that, it will likely succeed.

 

Serena needs to stop hiding behind accusations which harm her supposed cause

On Friday evening I popped along to Carrickfergus Amphitheatre to watch the home ladies hockey team, Castle, take on Irish hockey league side Ards. This was an opportunity, in the land of the World Cup Finallists after all, to see the game played at a very high level. Ten minutes before the game started, it emerged they were short of one umpire, and so it fell to me to help out.

Hockey has a four-warning system – verbal warning, two-minute suspension (green card), longer suspension (yellow card), and permanent expulsion (red card). My personal preference even with top-level teams is to try to avoid using the cards at all, if possible, managing the game as best I can by friendly chats rather than disciplining.

Here is the thing, however: if a player ever referred to me as a “liar”; ever suggested I had “stolen” something from them; or ever suggested I “owed an apology”; or certainly ever said they would see to it that I “never umpired on [their pitch] again”; I would have the red card out in an instant.

This brings us, of course, to Serena Williams. On Sunday, in a major final, she used each and every one of those terms – having already been correctly warned for coaching, and then correctly docked a point for breaking her racquet.

Unfortunately Serena, rightly a role model for many good reasons, is frankly being untruthful. She did not lose a game for using the word “thief”; she lost a game because of a series of warnings (for coaching, breaking a racquet and then verbal abuse) and the warning for verbal abuse came after a litany of outrageous accusations directed at an umpire powerless to answer back other than through the warning system. She was also untruthful even with what she said as she launched her abuse at the umpire – in fact, she had looked at her coach by her own admission, but caught on camera he had no option but to confirm he had not given her a “thumbs up” as she claimed.

Therefore, Serena is entirely responsible for a gross lack of discipline and an outrageous lack of respect for one of the most senior and respected officials in the history of the game. As she is a role model, this is worrying. It is inevitable that others will adopt a similar tone, and believe that they too can launch abuse at an umpire, over and over again, and somehow expect not to be penalised (to the extent even of dictating who umpires their matches). Nor, unfortunately, is this even the first instance within the current season of a senior woman player suggesting that a particular umpire should not be allowed to officiate her matches ever again – an appalling notion.

To try then to dress this all up as “sexism” is then a further outrage, not because sexism is not a problem in the game but rather because it absolutely is. Serena herself raised some legitimate examples post-match and there was much truth in Billie Jean King’s tweeted response in support of Serena noting differential coverage and reaction to female players versus men. However, to try to present outrageous abuse of an official as somehow part of a battle for women’s rights is offensive to those who are battling for women’s rights. It is also a shift in Serena’s position, from initially denying she had received coaching  to claiming instead that she had but somehow was treated differently for having received it. This specific case had nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with a senior player trying to abuse her position to attack an official and have the crowd join in. We may only be thankful that her opponent, Naomi Osaka, was not put off and went on to claim a thoroughly deserved victory.

There is another important issue here. What we saw on Saturday night was utterly inappropriate abuse of an umpire. It is no surprise, therefore, that tennis and indeed other sports like hockey are struggling to bring through officials (as evidenced by my own call into action on Friday) – who on earth would take on a role which, when done correctly, sees you accused of stealing, lying and sexism all while being treated as a pantomime villain?

Serena is plainly not a fundamentally bad person, as her post-match defence of her opponent showed. She still has time to put this right by simply apologising to the umpire and accepting publicly that her conduct was unacceptable and should not be held up as an example to anyone. However even if she does not, everyone else must come to terms with the fact she stepped well, well over the line on Saturday – not least because the cause of tackling sexism in sport deserves better than a nonsensical association with poor behaviour, and because sport itself simply cannot be played without umpires.

French (and Italian) grammatical “absurdity”

Two Belgian ex-teachers in the French-speaking part of the country published an article (in French) seeking to achieve what is surely the impossible – to change a ‘rule’ of French grammar. They are doing so because, they claim, the rule is ‘absurd’.

The rule concerned is usually known in English as the “Preceding Direct Object” rule. It is a peculiar rule and one which will have caused some consternation among most who studied French to advanced level.

The rule concerns the agreement of the past participle in the perfect aspect (the usual way of indicating the past in spoken or all but the most formal written French). In a straightforward sentence when the main auxiliary verb is avoir ‘to have’, such as j’ai acheté les chaussures ‘I (have) bought the shoes’ the basic (actually masculine singular) form of the participle (acheté) is used.

However, if the verb requires être ‘to be’, used with certain verbs which are intransitive (cannot have a direct object), the participle ‘agrees’ with the subject: il est monté but elle est montée (and ils sont montéselles sont montées).

This also applies to reflexives: elle s’est lavée ‘she washed herself’. This means in effect that the participle is ‘agreeing’ with the direct object as well as the subject (in a reflexive clause they are the same).

However, the notion of the participle ‘agreeing’ with the direct object is then carried over in the modern language to include when the direct object is a pronoun (in which case it appears before the verb): thus j’ai acheté les chaussures but je les ai achetées (assuming we are still referring to chaussures). In fact, French has since the 17th century at least adopted an outright rule that the participle ‘agrees’ with any direct object preceding the verb in the sentence. Thus it is even: les chaussures que j’ai achetées.

The fundamental principle is sometimes said (by prescriptive grammarians) to be that a participle with avoir after the direct object is in effect an adverb (and thus unchangeable), whereas one after a direct object or the subject of être is an adjective (and thus ‘agrees’). Quite where this idea came from is unclear.

The Belgian teachers’ argument here is that for all this complication (and it took long enough to write the above), there is generally no difference in pronunciation whatsoever (with minor exceptions: the participle in j’ai pris les chaussures ‘I took the shoes’ is pronounced differently, at least in careful speech, from the participle in les chaussures que j’ai prises; but this is a rarity). Their argument, therefore, is that the whole thing is basically an unnecessary complication, an irrelevance, and in any case an aberration borrowed for no particular reason from Italian.

They unquestionably have a point. Spanish, for example, manages perfectly well constructing its perfect through the auxiliary verb haber and an invariable past participle: he comprado las zapatas; las he comprado; las zapatas que he comprado. No difference. Easy. (It was not ever so, however, and in fact we still see vestiges of the old system of ‘agreement’ in modern Spanish: it is still the case that if tener is used as the principal verb rather than haber to emphasise the change of state, the participle agrees with the participle: tengo compradas las zapatas ‘I’ve got the shoes bought’; however, this is regular because the participle agrees regardless of the position in the sentence of the direct object.)

What is interesting, however, is that if the rule was borrowed from Italian, it was probably borrowed in error. Modern Italian, with some minor exceptions, does not require (although it does permit) agreement of the participle with a preceding direct object as in French; and it is questionable whether it ever did.

Modern Italian does require ‘agreement’ with a third person direct object pronoun: ho comprato le scarpe; le ho comprate. The reason for this is understandable; in speech, the third person direct object pronoun sounds the same before any form of avere ‘to have’, and thus it is the participle which indicates the actual form: l’ho comprato is masculine singular; l’ho comprata feminine singular; li ho comprati masculine plural and le ho comprate feminine plural – in each case, in general speech, the only difference clearly heard between each of those is the final letter.

Otherwise, however, Italian does not require ‘agreement’; some speakers prefer ci hai visti (with agreement) and others ci hai visto ‘you have seen us’. Generally, in fact, Italian prefers non-agreement if the direct object is not a pronoun: le scarpe che ho comprato would be preferred by most speakers to le scarpe che ho comprate, although neither would be seen as an error.

Italian, therefore, has maintained the preceding direct object rule as an option, but absolutely requires it only where it specifically assists understanding by enabling a clear distinction in pronunciation. French, on the other hand, insists on maintaining the rule in all circumstances, despite the fact that in almost all cases it makes no difference to pronunciation whatsoever (and thus cannot be decisive to understanding).

The Belgian teachers clearly have a point, therefore. There appears no reason whatsoever, therefore, that French would not in fact adopt the Spanish rule over the Italian one, not least because the Italian one is not even a rule but rather an option! However, it is unlikely much will change – the fact is we as human beings become very accustomed to grammatical rules, even the plainly ‘absurd’ ones!

Donegal Ulster Scots

For the day that’s in it…

Wee Hughie

He’s gaen tae schuil, wee Hughie,
An him no fouwer.
Shuir A saa the fricht wis in him,
Whan he left the deur.

But he tuik a haund o Denny
An a haund o Dan,
Wi Joes auld coat upon him –
Och, the puir wee maun!

He cut the quaerest feigur,
Mair stout nor thin;
An trottan richten steadie
Wi his taes turnt in.

A watcht him tae the corner
O the big turf stak,
An themair his feet went forrit,
Still his heid turnt bak.

He wis leukan, wad A caa him –
Och ma hairt wis wae –
Shuir it’s losst A am athout him,
But he buid tae gae.

A follaed tae the turnin
Whan thay past it aa,
Goad help him, he wis cryan,
An, mebbes, sae wis A.

Original: Elizabeth McShane

#WeDeserveBetter – or do we?

I have brought this blog out of political retirement to say just one thing. Delivering good government is complex.

This should not be a controversial statement. To manage a health service while adapting to new treatments, new equipment and new medical conditions while dealing with an ageing population presenting with ever more complex care needs (my father alone has prostrate cancer, dementia and diabetes) is difficult. To manage an education system which meets the needs of the economy, the expectations of parents and the interest of children all while ensuring those who emerge from it are genuinely educated and able to adapt in a fast-changing world is difficult. Even to put in place a new guided bus system in one city which will attract people out of their cars, improve traffic flow and help the environment while meeting the needs and expectations of people through both the delivery and the transition is a project fraught with immense difficulty.

Delivering these things, and managing the people and systems required to do so, is a hugely complicated and difficult task requiring a significant base of skills and experience.

To repeat, this should not be controversial. And yet it is incredible – incredible – how many people do not take account of it and go about their daily lives as if these things are easy and straightforward. They are not.

This brings us to a problem afflicting the Western World, particularly the Anglosphere – populism. Populists do not come forward with solutions. They come forward with problems and then, given the complexity actually involved with resolving those problems, they pick instead on something simplistic (or, worse, on a particular minority group) to blame. “These things are actually simple”, they say, “except the elite/the establishment/the foreigners/the gays/the weak moaning group-of-your-choice are telling you otherwise!”

Pointing at things which are wrong, they simply point out they are wrong and that they must be put right – but never bother to explain how. So it is in Northern Ireland. One side points out the damage caused by terrorists and the other side points out the damage caused by the denial of rights. But neither gives you a coherent plan to fixing it or even moving on from it. People all over the Western World would no doubt recognise that general problem in their own political system, or at least one very nearby.

In Northern Ireland, what is remarkable is how little public reaction there has been. There are no industrial actions, no protest marches, not even really public discussions of any kind.

Stepping into the void was, supposedly, the #WeDeserveBetter campaign. To its supporters, this looks like an obvious common sense campaign saying that politicians should get back to work.

Yet here is the thing: to DUP supporters it is common sense that it is Sinn Fein which is solely responsible for blocking restoration through its pre-conditions; to Sinn Fein supporters it is common sense that it is the DUP refusing to ensure equal rights as part of government. No one doesn’t want to do the job – it is just the other side is blocking them from doing so. What has #WeDeserveBetter to say about those viewpoints?

Sadly it became apparent almost instantly that #WeDeserveBetter is just as populist as the very populists who are holding us all up.

Firstly, they pointed out how much MLAs have been paid since the Executive fell. Those are, of course, the MLAs we elected, carrying out the platforms under which we elected them. As it happens, comfortably more than half elected under the broadly proportional system we operate were from the two largest parties required to form an Executive. So what does #WeDeserveBetter propose to do about this fact? Ignore popular mandates? Sack the politicians the people elected? Abolish democracy?

Secondly, they then decided to host a rally calling for some common sense changes in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland – primarily reforms to marriage and abortion legislation. This is, in fact, somewhat more complex than it sounds. Presumably, marriage legislation should allow same-sex couples the same rights to civic marriage as any others, but should protect churches from any obligation in this regard (which may require slightly different drafting from the rest of the UK given Northern Ireland’s distinct equality laws, both in terms of the legislation applicable and the legal judgments applied here to it)? On abortion, are we proposing to follow a 50-year-old law in Great Britain which quite specifically does not give the woman the right to choose (taking the risk that courts in Northern Ireland will set the same precedent as they did in Great Britain five decades ago) or something more like the Irish proposal (itself in fact seemingly based on German law, which is much more restrictive than Great Britain’s in terms of timing but establishes more clearly the woman’s right)? What precisely, here, is the #WeDeserveBetter campaign proposing?

Of course, it then turned out that even having the same rights for LGBT and women as in the rest of the UK and Ireland was “divisive”, according to some who believe #WeDeserveBetter. (It should be quite obvious, by the way, that those who have suffered from the denial of basic civil and medical rights definitely “deserve better”.)

So when people came to demand “better”, the fact is they could not even agree on basic principles of social policy. When you then get to the very real and difficult complications of transforming an entire health and social care service; reforming the schools estate and skills; or even implementing a guided bus system; and doing all of this within a budget already well above what we actually raise in revenue, what have they to say? How on earth would they be expected to agree on those highly complex matters, if even basic social policy and rights are too difficult?

Therein lies the difficulty!

At the last election, almost two-thirds of the population voted for the two “problem parties” (defined as those required to form an Executive but unable to agree how to do so) despite knowing that they were the problem parties – indeed, almost 30% voted for a party on the very specific proposition that it would not take its seats in the legislature. Neither party is particularly keen on forming a government because, of course, government is actually complex and difficult. Both remain more popular by not forming a government.

Yet those who would oppose them then fall into the same trap. Just like the DUP and Sinn Fein, they present apparently common sense propositions (“MLAs are paid too much”; “politicians are useless”, “#WeDeserveBetter”), only to find that as soon as a single one of those propositions is tested (“Well obviously we should have a more progressive social policy…”) the whole thing falls apart. Just as with the DUP and Sinn Fein, it turns out to be much easier to oppose the government with some basic slogans no one could be seen to disagree with, than actually form a government to deal with the very real complexities and difficulties of delivering public services and social policy (never mind economic strategies – no one even pretends to bother with those) on behalf of a diverse population.

Thus, even the very basic proposition is ultimately populist, however well meaning it is. We all like to think we “deserve better” – the people opposing that proposition will be as numerous as those opposing the proposition that “terrorists are bad” or that “equal rights are good”! The problem comes when we start defining those terms…

And so it is that when I campaign at elections what I see is a vast majority voting for the very two parties who are quite obviously the problem; when I hit the doors between elections I find very few people prepared to give up their time and join me; and when I propose think tanks to look at very real issues of health, education and jobs no one shows any real interest. It is much easier to tweet angrily about radio programmes playing to our base instinct of “identity politics” where we can just blame an “out group” of our choosing.

I understand. We are all busy. But based on our voting record, our campaigning time and our ability even to think through the complexities and difficulties faced by those trying to deliver a functioning health service, education system and transport infrastructure on a budget limited by what we are ourselves prepared to pay in rates and taxes, I have to wonder – if “we” deserve better, who precisely are “we” and on what basis do we “deserve” it?

 

Today, we are all hockey fans

Well, well, well.

The qualification of both Irish teams for their respective Hockey World Cups this year (the women’s in England just past, and the men’s in India towards the end of the year) was seen as a significant step for the sport here, as it had never happened before. The progression of the women’s team all the way to the Final really was a rub-your-eyes fairytale.

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What is striking about the above image, courtesy FIH, is how happy the players are to be there. Indeed, running out for the final, far from nerves there were smiles. This was a team which was proud simply to be at the tournament – but also stunningly determined to stay there!

First, a word on the scale of the achievement. Some correspondents thought any comparison with soccer is silly, because the vast majority of countries in the world play soccer whereas very few prioritise hockey. Yet that was the point. Ireland is one of those which doesn’t prioritise hockey, and yet still reached the Final having not even qualified for three previous tournaments.

Indeed, remarkably, only three countries had played in the Final since the tournament became established as a regular four-year event from 1990 – each of the last seven finals had involved two of the Netherlands, Australia or Argentina. It so happened that all three of those plus hosts (and effectively Olympic champions) England ended up on the same side of the draw; and Ireland seized the chance (a chance it had earned by winning England’s group) to come through the other half brilliantly.

Second, there is then the issue that the team’s progress was followed by inevitable calls for better funding. As someone whose whole family in involved in the game – playing and (in my case because I have no actual talent) umpiring – I have no objection to that idea. However, what we saw over the past fortnight was bigger and better than a mere appeal for funding. Indeed, it was the ultimate proof that the best things in life do not involve money.

Hockey, in Ireland (or certainly Ulster) at least, does not do money. Not only are players expected to pay levies (even, until recently, to play for Ireland), but administrators, PR people, coaches and umpires all operate for free – most do not even receive expenses (even at lower levels a football referee, for example, can expect £30 plus travel). The whole culture and basis of the game, therefore, is different from those of sports which are designed from the outset to be professional.

Perhaps because of this, hockey receives very little exposure or coverage. Yet there is a further issue here we may need to contemplate – unusually by global standards, in Ireland hockey is a predominantly female sport (in terms of playing participation by about 2:1). In fact, in Northern Ireland alone, during the season over 2000 women play senior club hockey every weekend, plus many hundreds more in junior clubs and schools. It would be interesting to know if many other sports can match that figure.

The gender issue is a tricky one but it needs to be raised because gender balance is to be achieved not only by encouraging female participation in sports where participation is mainly male, but also surely by encouraging coverage and exposure of sports which are already predominantly female. What happened over the past few days offers a glorious opportunity to address that deficit.

Therefore, beyond any funding issue, there is the broader point that hockey deserves – in terms of everything from the level of volunteer participation to the success of elite level players in the world stage – broader exposure and coverage.

So the next time we see the standard “sports marketing” picture with the supposedly big three sports (soccer, GAA and rugby), let us ask ourselves: what about hockey? And then think of players with smiles on their faces…

Youthful France’s victory exposes another English myth

On Saturday, the ITV commentary team explained away England’s second defeat to Belgium (whose team is drawn from a population a fifth of its size) by noting that Belgium’s side is “seven or eight years further on in its development”.

The next day, France won the World Cup. Its team had an average age lower than England’s.

Somehow or other France, a country which in general does not take football as seriously as England, has managed to reach four major finals since winning the World Cup for the first time 20 years ago, winning two (and losing another on penalties). England celebrated a place in the semi-final – the first it had reached in any tournament in that period – as if it was a spectacular achievement.

To emphasise, it was not a terrible outcome for England by any means. The team coach earned it support from unusual quarters; the attitude of the “young” players suggests that they are aware of the need to improve markedly; and the hopelessness that had shrouded the team for four years or so has been lifted.

However, there remains a peculiar and pervasive attitude that somehow success will occur if we just, well, “believe in it” or something. The task now is simply to wait for the next tournament (whose Final and semis happen to be in London) and then, well, basically “hope” that the team has learned a bit. That is no more a strategy for international football success than it is for negotiating Brexit.

Indeed, it is not hard to see that the two attitudes are peculiarly linked. There seems – in football as in broad society and politics – an odd unwillingness in England to learn from Continental Europe. When comparing health systems, public debate suggests that it is the NHS or America; not once are Continental European countries – with their better outcomes and higher life expectancies – ever given a second glance.

So it is with football. Continental Europe has provided every single European Champion and the comfortable majority of World Champions, including each of the last four (and in fact seven of the last eight finallists, constituting six different teams). Not once do I recall hearing any sort of discussion as to how, exactly, they do it. Indeed, England’s elimination was met with a bizarre debate about whether the term “It’s Coming Home” had somehow particularly motivated the Croats, in a way they would not anyway have been motivated when playing in a World Cup semi!

So again pundits retreat to an odd safety blanket of a “young team” (even though it is older than the one which won) and an underlying notion that all would be well except for those pesky foreigners particularly raising their game against England because of some tagline. Not once is there any consideration of what it takes to develop a team with tactical nous, technical ability and indeed raw hunger – the type of nous, ability and hunger which saw tiny Croatia (hardly backed by world-class facilities or a world-class league) achieve a level England have literally never reached away from home – actually beating their own best, which was already better than England’s!

As one correspondent implied on this blog, as of next week England’s World Cup victory will in fact be closer to the beginning of World War One than it is to today. A fine story though it is, to the rest of the world the constant harping on about it has become beyond embarrassing – but in fact, as Fabio Capello noted, it is the English themselves who are harmed most of all by the “ghosts of ’66”. It is as if international football should remain petrified there, in its natural place with England at the top of the pile, and no further effort should be made to invest in coaching, facilities and analysis which may enable a serious challenge for honours to be maintained on as regular a basis as it is in other countries of similar size and resource.

In football as in government, it is long since time England thought not about running away from the Continent, but of embracing the concept of humility as its coach so ably did and learning from those who do things better.

England may long regret semi failure

It was understandable that England fans were pleased to have some self-respect restored after debacles of 2014 and 2016, and they had every right to take pride in the way they were represented by Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and others. However, where they previously understated the prospects of the English team, they are now vastly overstating this year’s accomplishment.

There was always every prospect of England reaching the latter stages of the tournament once the draw was made. In the group, they had only to get past small North African country, Tunisia, and a Central American country whose population is smaller than Scotland’s and whose main sport is baseball, Panama. After that, a second round encounter with a team from the weakest group in the tournament (a group with no previous finallist at either a World Cup or a European Championship) was assured, making the quarter final a likelihood. Even at that, England progressed to that stage having lost the other group game against Belgium (still a country with barely a sixth of England’s population) and then via a penalty shootout. Then, in the quarterfinal, there was a bit of luck, after Germany had surprisingly folded in the first round for the first time since 1938, that it was not the world champions but rather a very average Sweden who awaited, and thus the semi-final was reached for only the third time.

Having played no country which had even reached a World or European Final within the lifetime of someone of average age in England, and only one country with a population more than a fifth as large, England were in a World Cup semi-final. Then there was another stoke of luck – due to the vagaries of the draw, a country smaller than Scotland which was only there courtesy of two penalty shootouts awaited, Croatia. This century, only Germany in 2002 had a comparably easy route to the Final. There was a difference, though. That German side (the one trounced by England in qualifying, in fact) made the most of their luck and got to the Final. Despite scoring first, England in 2018 still contrived not to.

For a country of such a small population, Croatia has an astonishingly good team packed with players who have done all there is to do at club level. But England will surely regret the missed opportunity. In 2014, finallists Germany had seen off past winners and hosts Brazil and past winners France, and Argentina had seen off three-time finallists the Netherlands. In 2010, Spain beat past then three-times winners Germany and the Netherlands beat five-times winners Brazil and two-times winners Uruguay. In 2006 Italy had to come past Germany and France had to get past each of Spain and Brazil. In other words, you generally don’t get to the Final without beating other major sides – typically past winners or at very least multiple finallists.

England’s run was, therefore, so straightforward. As ever, the media vastly exaggerated the scale of the achievement when England dispatched tiny Panama (in its first ever World Cup); and then lost the plot entirely after beating Sweden (a country with a population only slightly larger than Greater London). You can, of course, only beat the teams in front of you. But that is just the problem – England didn’t!

England’s overall record, despite not playing a past winner, was played 7, won 3, drew 1, lost 3. In reality, that is mid-table obscurity.

While there was much to commend in the way the team went about their business and, particularly, in the way the manager conducted himself, the fact is all the same failure traits were apparent. In times of desperation against real quality – Colombia in extra time or Croatia or Belgium more or less throughout – England were overrun in midfield and resorted to punting the ball forward aimlessly. A fuss was made about scoring more goals than 1966 but half of them in competitive play were against the worst team in the tournament – and all this while conceding on average more than one a game.

The problem, therefore, is that although England’s long suffering fans had every right to revel in their good fortune, they should be under no illusions for the future that that is what it was. England’s players still remain tactically behind, unable to switch a game during it; arguably they remain technically behind too, overly relying on set pieces; and there remains no evident ability to kill or turn a game by maintaining possession for long periods. Even in games England dominated, actual chances in open play were few and defensive vulnerabilities evident. More than that, the profound failure to be able to analyse the game – so obvious when listening to the tiresome “punditry” which accompanied the run – suggests England are still not learning.

There are four Western European countries with comparable populations to England – Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Each of these other four has won at least one major tournament and reached at least three Finals this century alone. England haven’t even reached a Final in over 50 years, and never away from home. The scale of the difference is stark, and demonstrates why the odd semi here and there should not be overstated. England should be in semifinals fairly regularly – and winning them quite often.

This is not to say good runs should not be celebrated. But it is a stark warning that there is in fact little evidence that a corner has truly been turned. There is some hope that youth development has improved so the decade to come should indeed be an improvement on the one which has just passed. However, for as long as the prime objective of English football is to maintain the richest league in the world rather than the best national team, it is unlikely much will truly change.

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As a separate point, there was an interesting discussion on Twitter about whether final placing should be the ultimate determinant of how well a team did. Essentially, on that basis, England 2018 are the second Best England World Cup team ever, joint with 1990.

I see the logic of that, but dispute it! In 2002, for example, England faced former finallists Sweden, former double winners Argentina and 200m-strong Nigeria in the group, before meeting former European champions Denmark in the knock-out round and then being eliminated in the quarter final by Brazil en route to their fifth title. Given the quality of the opposition, I would argue that team did better than the 2018 team, whose opposition were of lower calibre. I would certainly argue that the 1990 team, which faced then current European champions the Netherlands, beat Belgium and lost on penalties to eventual winners for the third time West Germany, had a clearly better record than 2018’s.

But it’s definitely arguable, so thoughts on that welcome!

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