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.