Friday, 24 June 2011



This past week, the England U21 team was bundled out of the U21 World Championships is Denmark. The British press had an almost identical headline across the board, “England crashes out.” Come to think of it, every time the English national team exits a tournament, the press has headlines of a similar vein.

A close look at any of England’s games leads one to think the English press don’t watch the same soccer the rest of us do. In my understanding, ‘crashing out’ means a superior team, probably a tournament favorite, has shockingly been dumped from the tourney by an inferior team, or through a series of unfortunate events. Starting with the England U21s; they shared a group with pre-tournament favorites Spain and Czech Republic. From watching the England’s two games against those two, one could see the English were severely inferior to the two despite England coach Stuart Pierce throwing around words like ‘spirit’ , ‘hunger’, ‘never say die attitude’ and other rhetoric we’ve grown accustomed to hearing from all losing England managers. It shouldn’t be a suprise that the Czechs and the Spanish moved to the semis and England went home. What’s suprising is the use of words like ‘crashing out’ and ‘shocking exit’. I know they invented the language but they seem to intentionally murder it when the topic is their sportsmen.

The English soccer fraternity has been in the habit of over-hyping their teams and stars for so long. They have long harbored the notion that England is at the pinnacle of world football and their teams are perennial contenders. They have all the right rhetoric, and some interesting sound bites to prove it. Some recent famously ridiculous quotes include but are not limited to;

“David Beckham is the best player in the world”, Various. Note: This was in a world that included Zidane, Figo, Rivaldo and so on at the peak of their powers.
“Joe Cole is as good as Messi. Anything Messi can do with the ball, Joe can do”, Steven Gerard, proving once and for all that being a good footballer doesn’t make you a good talent scout, commentator, coach, or anything other than a good footballer.
“Players in our senior squad like Terry, Ferdinand, Lampard, Stevie G and Rooney would easily start at Barca”, Jordan Henderson, England U21 player, right after the aforementioned ‘crashing out’ in Denmark. Ahem, don’t you mean Barcelona B.
“Manchester United is the best club side in Europe”, Various. Note: these had reduced drastically over the past 3 years but really came to a screeching halt at Wembley in May.
“Rooney is among the 3 best players in the world”, Rio Ferdinand, proving Piers Morgan’s various assertions about his intellect or lack thereof, on Twitter.

This was the headline the day before England played Portugal in the Euro 2004 quarterfinals. Do I need to tell you that Portugal knocked them out of the tournament?

Looking beyond the platitudes.

Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels  said that if a lie was told often enough, it became the truth. It seem British media took this lesson to heart. I can’t possibly remember half of the nonsense that has been spewed forth so frequently about English soccer that has become the truth overtime. Many of us actually get suprised when England fails to get to the final of a major tournament. The cold facts are very suprising;

England has won one major national tournament in their history, the 1966 World Cup which they hosted and won amid some controversy.( Apparently, FIFA didn’t start being unscrupulous last year). They have never won the European Cup. Their best ever FIFA ranking was 4th , sometime in 1996. This puts them at par with the likes of Denmark, Uruguay, Chile and Sweden in terms of achievement. Yet we never hear that Denmark crashed out of the World Cup. They quietly go home and onto the next one.

Of the biggest and most successful football federations in Europe(England, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Holland), only the English FA has ever employed a foreigner to manager the national team. The FA also actively considers, and tries to naturalize players who aren’t even British born in a bid to solve their problems. Manuel Alumunia was once touted as the solution to England’s goalkeeping problems. Alumunia!

The English Premier League, which is touted as the best league in the world, only became a global brand due to the influx of foreign world famous managers and superstars around the turn of the century. This coincided with the TV deals that made the average English clubs significantly wealthier than continental rivals. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to state that the English ‘Top Four’ dominance of the latter stages of the Champions League in recent years, is thanks largely to the likes of Christiano Ronaldo, Drogba, Fabregas and Torres, as opposed to Carrick, Fletcher, Crouch and the like. One could make an argument for United’s team of the mid to late 90s but that was an exception to the norm and Sir Alex is probably an Illuminati member! We also can’t dismiss the role of a one Monsieur Cantona in establishing that team as a power; or the large slice of luck (and complacency on Bayern’s part ), that contributed to them grabbing their first European Cup in modern times. 

It’s not only the players that hyped beyond belief. The clubs too. Since the rebranding of the old Eurobean Cup to the Chambions league in 1992, two English clubs have won it 3 times. That’s as many times as Barcelona alone... The Spainiards have won a total of 6 times and Italians have won it 6 times. The Champions League all time top goalscorers list doesn't have an Englishman in the top 25! Since, the inception of the FIFA World Footballer of the Year award in 1991, it has never been won by an Englishman. (It was even won by a Liberian in 1995)

More interestingly, in as much as the EPL is full of foreigners, it’s very rare to find English footballers plying their trade in continental leagues. I can count, on one hand, Englishmen that have successfully played in other major European leagues over the last ten or so years. Steve Mcmanaman, Owen Hagreaves, Michael Owen, Beckham... I am stuck! There has to be a reason why foreign clubs aren’t interested in English players. 

There’s a school of thought claiming that the EPL pays best so English players never see the need to move abroad. This is utter garbage. Yes, they pay more but the actual take-home pay is just over half of their official salaries due to English income tax of about 50%  at that income level. In Spain, it’s 27%. It has, in fact, been estimated that Ronaldo will save about  £15m over the course of his current Madrid contract compared to if he’d stayed at Man U, on the same wages. I am sure Carrick wouldn’t mind saving a few million quid, in better weather.

What is the problem?

The first problem is that football was invented in England so it’s assumed they should, naturally, be the best at it. I think sucking at football hurts their national pride as much as it would the Italians if they consistently got beaten at a pizza making competition. So  the media and consequently, the public play up the talents of English players. Catching Beckham using his left foot to do anything other than supporting half his body weight was as rare as Xavi misplacing a pass. He cared so much about not messing up his latest hairdo, he never learnt to head the ball. And apart from that one goal against Real that Man U folk harp on about, he never beat a man in his life.  Yet he is on track to knighthood! By such lofty standards, Zidane would be the Prince of Wales! Rooney is a prolific striker with his fair share of touches of class. It still doesn’t warrant him a mention in the same breath as Messi and CR7. Even if Rio’s rating were true, it would be Messi, Ronaldo, a couple of country miles, then Rooney! The thug wouldn’t get close even if he shaved the number 3 into his chest hair

Most importantly, too much pressure is placed on the serially underachieving Three Lions by placing on them ‘the favorites’ tag. Anyone who has seen England play in recent times will agree that their biggest flaw (apart from obvious lack of talent) is the fear of making mistakes because they are ‘favorites’ and they boast ‘best players in the world’. The best football I’ve seen England play, in a while, was when they trailed Germany at the World Cup in South Africa, with nothing to lose. In that case, the talent gulf showed and they were swept by the rampart Germans but for once they looked like the team they aspire to be. The rest of the time, they are trying not to be ‘upset’ by the likes of 2004 Euros kings Greece, 1992 Euro champions Denmark and two time World Champions Uruguay.

One famous Italian coach once held a soccer clinic for kids in England and put their technique problems down to the weather. He claimed it was too windy for kids to be taught basic skills like ball control, retaining possession and tactical awareness. So they do the next best thing. They get them as fit, passionate and hard working as possible and hope for the best. They also grow up idolizing the likes of Frank Lampard and Ray Parlour. That would explain Jordan Henderson bunching those glorified mechanics with finesse artisans like Andres Iniesta. This also explains all the superlatives Stuart Pierce used to describe his U21 players and their insipid performances.

Sadly, this trend isn’t about to stop however much English football continues to tank. It is so entrenched that it long spread to other sports. Tim Henman tried, in vain, to win at Wimbledon for a decade plus but it never stopped the public from believing every year. Now it’s Andy Murray’s turn to try and win despite some combination of Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and all the unnecessary weight of expectation. I am no fortune teller but I can tell you this for free, he won’t even get close to winning at Wimbledon this year. And the public will be back next year with the same expectations.

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