Monday, June 28, 2010

Not Looking for a New England

The England team visited an orphanage in Bloemfontein today. “It’s heartbreaking to see their sad little faces with no hope,” said Jamal, aged six.

England is clearly not the best in the world at playing football, but arguably we are the best at writing about football.

Anyone scanning today's newspapers will thus have reviewed a fabulous range of explanations for our demise, most of them quite credible (except for those espousing David Beckham as manager). It's difficult to know what to add.

My favourite adjectives came from the brilliant Simon Kuper in that famous sporting periodical, the Financial Times.

He described John Terry's style as 'outdated', and his pairing with Matthew Upson as well-suited to a centre forward that is virtually 'extinct.'

The self-delusion in this country remains excessive, but it must surely finally have taken a devastating blow.

Even after yesterday's embarrassment, there is still a degree of can such a group of talented players perform so poorly?

Yet on what basis is the presumption of talent based? English club teams perform merely adequately on the European stage, when expectations are adjusted for their extraordinary wealth. And of course they're chock full of foreigners anyhow.

Either way, the excesses of the Premiership have taken much of the flak so far.

Indeed it is possible that we cannot have both the world's most popular league and a successful national side, but perhaps not always for obvious reasons.

Much blame is heaped upon the sheer number of foreign players in the Premiership, but this is frankly an absurd argument. There is ample room for the cream of the homegrown talent to rise to the top.

A bigger problem is the total lack of English players with experience of playing abroad.

There is not a single member of the 2010 World Cup squad with so much as a minute's experience of any other type of domestic football, even Scottish!

Kim Jong Il even allowed a couple of his North Koreans to experience life outside their domestic game.

But who can blame our pampered players? After all, in what other league in the world could the likes of Upson, Barry, and Heskey earn even a fraction of what they earn now?

It's doubtless true that the way we coach our youngsters does not produce great footballers, but again the system is entirely rational for the players (and importantly their parents).

If you are an exceptionally gifted player, then you will make a great living playing football anywhere (but will almost certainly choose to make it in England).

But if you are merely average why learn to pass and move, when knowing how to win headers and make crunching tackles will enable you to earn £250k per annum merely playing Championship football?

England thus possesses the richest team in the world, which in its supreme lack of self-deprecation, thus presumes that ergo it must also be the best team.

The tabloid media in the pre-tournament build-up make little attempt to convince them otherwise, with headlines like "E.A.S.Y." (England; Algeria; Slovenia; Yanks).

It would be like claiming that American actors are the best in the world, because they are the richest (when infact it's merely the ubiquity of Hollywood that explains the phenomenon).

Yet if there was a World Cup for acting, my money would be on the French (unless Raymond Domenech was in charge of course).

But one needs to take a step back and ask why the Premiership has become the richest league in the world.

In short, it's because its high-tempo style is seemingly unique in regularly producing outstanding football matches.

The mild weather helps too of course, as does the historical legacy of Manchester United and Liverpool.

The Premiership produces matches akin to basketball, with teams alternating the right to attack. The fans demand the ball to be played forward.

It produces a magnificent spectacle but technically deficient footballers, who can excel in only one environment.

Elsewhere in the world, the emphasis is on possession and movement.

It's notable that the only domestic team whose style resembles the best international sides (Arsenal) was unrepresented in England's squad.

Some might claim that the foreign nature of Arsenal's team helps explain England's demise.

However I'd prefer to argue that one should instead respect Arsene Wenger's implicit admission that domestic players simply aren't good enough to play such extreme passing football.

Interestingly some Arsenal fans are becoming exasperated at their (relative) lack of success, which if you think about it ties in nicely with my argument about the Premiership being almost a sport unto itself.

I don't blame the England players, as much as I depise them as human beings with only a few notable exceptions (eg. James, Milner, Gerrard). We did not fail due to lack of effort.

But technical deficiencies notwithstanding, would they even have had the inherent intelligence and humility to respond to Capello's methods?

It's easy to assume our footballers are more stupid than the rest, but whilst we know almost all of ours are stupid, I'm confident their foreign counterparts wouldn't be doctors if they weren't footballers.

Everyone sounds intelligent to my ear when they're speaking in a foreign language.

Admittedly it'd have helped if Capello could have delivered the requisite message in fluent English, but then again Guus Hiddink's grasp of Korean in 2002 was probably a little rusty.

For these reasons and others, I attach no blame to the Italian. When so many different styles of England managers have failed, then it becomes increasingly clear that the problem is systemic.

Hopefully the total capitulation in Bloemfontein will finally put to rest the idea that England are a world class team forever handed cruel bad luck.

When Frank Lampard's 'goal' was ruled out, I feared it would be added to the long list of excuses which permit the FA and some parts of the media, to perpetuate that myth until the next major tournament.

Instead the humiliating second half has made it a mere afterthought, and rightly so.

However given the choice between the all-encompassing excitement of the Premiership or a successful national side, I suspect the vast majority of English football followers would choose the former.

Luckily for them it's almost certainly a Hobson's choice too.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Getting the Horn

The campaign against the World Cup 'vuvuzela' began with a whisper, but now ironically threatens to become a cacophony of sound.

Initially I enjoyed their incessant buzz, but now they are utterly ruining the tournament.

Germany gave a footballing masterclass tonight. A sublime display of penetrative pacy football.

They were everything that we were led to believe England would be, but weren't.

But could one detect the atmosphere waxing and waning with the pace of the game?

Of course not because of those damned horn blowers.

You couldn't even tell if a goal had stood or been disallowed, until the caption changed.

After all, anyone who has left a football ground early to beat the traffic, will acknowledge how one can follow the rhythm of the action from the sound alone.

Closer to home, my local tennis club is situated alongside the West Coast main line.

If I am receiving serve just as a train approaches, I will ask the server to wait.

Why? After all, it is the server who is most likely to be distracted by the passing locomotive.

The reason is the importance of hearing the sound of the ball from the racket.

Not as important as the sight obviously, but relevant nonetheless.

If this is true in small town tennis, surely the same must be true for world class football.

Who knows, maybe it was an obscure reason for Robert Green's mishap?

Perhaps he relied on his ears as much as his eyes to tell him how well the shot had been struck.

No-one wants football to be played in silence, so I am offering a simple solution.

Ban fans from carrying them into the stadium, but place a limited amount under the seats to be used by those lucky enough to find them there.

That way you retain the unique African flavour of the tournament, but not at the expense of other sounds from English singing to Brazilian samba.

For once, I trust FIFA will do the right thing.

Green Tea

The suspense is finally over. The agonising build-up is now complete.

Yes folks, we now know the winner of Junior Apprentice, the ever so slightly annoying (surely precocious? - Ed.) Arjun.

Meanwhile a few thousand miles south, the World Cup got under way with a cracking opening fixture followed by four rather ordinary ones.

England's result and performance was fairly predictable. The technical frailties as evident as always, against opposition that we inevitably underestimated.

Given that Americans consider us Brits as tea-obsessed, it was a gift to their headline writers that they were handed a valuable point by a player called Green.

Moreover at least this was one British spill that the Americans were actually quite pleased about.

It was a horrific mistake of course, but somewhat understandable.

If you're a nervous keeper making his World Cup debut, the last thing you want is time to think about a straightforward save you need to make. The instinctive point blank save meanwhile is far more welcome.

But let's not let Green off the hook too easily. The second-half save that Clive Tyldesley described as 'redemption' was actually very clumsy rather than accomplished. It nearly lost England the game.

I must confess that I'm not remotely emotionally involved with the England campaign.

They are just another team for me in the much wider and wonderful football festival that the modern World Cup has become.

I have no problem getting behind our nation's rugby players, cricketers, athletes or golfers for example, but the England football team leaves me stone cold.

It may well be because my love of Charlton conquers all (indeed I felt more engaged on the rare occasions in recent times when our own players were represented).

Or if I'm brutally honest, it's probably just a form of snobbery on my part. It will be a cold day in hell when I adorn my car with not one but two St George's flags.

On a different note, my blog posts are becoming more infrequent, and I'm contemplating finally putting it to rest for good. It was fun whilst it lasted.

Either way, unless something in the World Cup piques my interest, there probably won't be much to read here until the new season.

Until then, as David Cameron recently said (in an accent that I've certaintly never heard inside a football ground): "Come on England!"