Unsurprisingly for somebody who is unemployed (yup, I don’t start the new job until September; this is a good unemployed) I have been watching a fair bit of the world cup. I’m not just watching it because it’s a world cup either, I am a pretty big football fan and one of the things I missed most about living in Sakhalin was not being able to watch the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League. I can also quite happily sit through a cricket match played in any of the three main formats, plus any game of rugby league and southern hemisphere rugby union (I find the northen hemisphere game too slow). So I like watching sport, lots of it. Through my school years I proved to myself and everyone else that I am utterly hopeless at team sports and a few individual ones as well, but watching them is something I’ve always enjoyed.
So it’s the world cup, and England are being absolutely true to form in playing appalling football against supposedly lesser nations and whilst they are not being thrashed 3-0 they might as well be. Before I go any further I must confess there are people who can offer far better analysis and commentary on England’s woes and other footballing matters than I, namely James Hamilton and the superb Zonal Marking. I highly recommend James’ post regardless, ZM only if you are genuinely interested in football tactics on a deeper level.
Theories abound as to why England are performing so badly, but I believe I know why and the answer is frighteningly simple: the players are simply not good enough. And that’s about it. There are many factors which go into making a player good: fitness, skills, mental strength, etc. and James’ site is an excellent source of discussion on sports psychology, but the sum total is failing England’s players and has done so for years. An old boss of mine in Manchester who had been watching live football every weekend for years told me this over ten years ago. See those world class players? They’re not.
And they weren’t, and they aren’t. True, English players play wonderfully well in the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League and often turn out performances which would make you think they are world class, but when it come to the ultimate test – performance on a world stage against world class opposition – they come up short time and again. True, it is possible to succeed in a major international tournament without being world class, e.g. Greece in Euro ’04 and Italy in WC ’06, but a claim to being world class must be supported by top performances against all-comers. And for every England v Germany in 2001 or England v Argentina in 1998 there are half a dozen mediocre or downright awful performances, and in a tournament where you are only guaranteed three games and should you progress you have to win every game from then on, there is probably only room for one poor performance from a tournament winner. England have served up two, and the game against Slovenia will be no pushover. (Incidentally, and I know this will sound like I have seen a unicorn, but I actually know a Slovenian, and I haven’t mistaken her for a Slovakian either. Listening to the commentary on the world cup, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only one who knows where it is, let alone knowing somebody who carries a Slovenian passport. She’s the only one I’ve ever met though, and I did wonder how they found eleven fit men when she assured me there is none whatsoever, forcing her into the loving arms of a cheeky Brit! But I’m digressing, using my blog to make fun of people who can only defend themselves in the comments or by, erm, belting me one next time they see me.)
Anyway, back to England and their pitiful performances. Like I said, there are several factors which contribute to a player being “good”, and England are failing at two or three of the most important. Firstly, their skills aren’t any good, especially in the midfield. Their passing is awful, they lose possession, their first touch often lets them down, and their positional play is rubbish. Secondly, their attitude is all wrong, and it’s been wrong for as long as I can remember. You can see it in the body language, they have no confidence in their own abilities, and they are visibly nervous as hell on the pitch. They don’t look or act like winners, they look and act like a bunch of losers.
Take the example of our supposedly world class midfielders Frank Lampard and Steven Gerard in the world cup in 2006. Both missed their penalties in the shootout against Portugal, which sent them crashing out of the competition. Take a look at the video below. Lampard’s penalty is at 1.14 and Gerrard’s at 4:40.
They both look terrified, especially Gerrard whom the commentator described as “ashen-faced”. Does an ashen-faced sportsman sound like a world class winner to you?
Contrast this with what occurred the day before when Germany beat Argentina on penalties. Germany’s star midfielder Michael Ballack had picked up an injury late in the game and carried it through until the end, so was not fully fit when he took his penalty. Fully fit he may not have been, but he approached the penalty spot with a swagger and arrogance that betrayed his supreme confidence that he would send the ball into the back of the net like an Exocet missile. And sure enough (Ballack steps up at 1:30):
And that is the attitude of a world class sportsman.
I don’t think I have seen a better example of the yawning gulf between England’s players and their world class opposition. Almost every other nationality can see this gulf but amazingly the English either deny it exists or genuinely fail to see it. The odds at the start of the tournament for an England overall win were 15/2. Germany was 10/1. Odds do not only reflect likelihood of an outcome, they also consider the number of bets placed already: if lots of bets are put on a horse before a race, the odds drop rapidly. Given the bookies are offering longer odds on Germany than England, I can only assume that they have a misplaced confidence in the England team (which I doubt) or they have been swamped with bets on an England win. This isn’t patriotism, it’s delusion. I wonder how many foreigners took a bet on an England win. I bet you could fit them in a phone box.
But delusion has always accompanied the followers of the England football team. I remember before Euro 2000 somebody or other was expressing outrage that England were not favourites to win, outrage which must have seemed a bit silly when England failed to advance past the group stage. And I remember similar delusion surrounding the English performance at the 1998 world cup. I once suggested to an English fan that Romania had a better world cup than England, and he laughed as if I was mad. Let’s look at the evidence.
England beat Tunisia, lost to Romania, and beat Columbia in the group stages finishing with 6 points against Romania’s 7. England were knocked out in the next round after a superb display against Argentina, having had a perfectly good goal disallowed; Argentina went out in their next round at the hands of the Dutch. Romania lost their second round match against Croatia thanks to a dive by Aljosa Asanovic which handed them a penalty; Croatia went on to finish 3rd overall.
Other than the England performance against Argentina it is pretty hard to see how anyone could consider England to have done better than Romania in that tournament. But the English fan I spoke to was 100% convinced that had they won the game against Argentina they would have “gone all the way” for sure. Never mind that France – the eventual winners – were fielding one of the most effective sides ever assembled, the Dutch had an eye-watering lineup of talent which beat the Argentines and ran the Brazilians right down to the wire, and of course Brazil themselves who might just have presented an obstacle or two on England’s path to assured victory. The mere suggestion that some lowly country like Romania might be a better side than England is inconceivable to an English fan, even when Romania beat them again two years later and finished above them in the group for a second time.
So, in short I don’t believe that England are underperforming. For that to be true England must be capable of performing consistently better and I personally don’t believe they are. England are simply playing as England can and do, it is the expectations of different, better performances which are unrealistic. I am sure that many people, as usual, will blame the manager. I thought Sven Goran Eriksson was a blithering idiot in many ways, but he was trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as my old boss (the same one) once said. When Fabio Capello was appointed I thought that this is the final test of whether England’s problems are those of the manager or the players: if they cannot succeed under Capello they will not succeed under anyone. To me, the problem is now painfully obvious: the England team is not much good because their players are not much good either. I believe all other explanations have been exhausted.