There is an inclination deep within the England-inclined football writer’s soul to write the definitive “Why England Always Lose” post/article/column, similar to the drive for all US MFA graduates to write the “Great American Novel.” This is generally because, like the “secret of America,” the reasons England suck are considered ambiguous, mysterious, cultural, vague, poetic.
I’m not that writer, but mostly because I don’t think the source of the English national team’s perpetual woe can only be viewed through a glass, darkly. If you can manage to wipe away the fanatical, iconoclastic patina from the usual quarters (anti-England people, anti-foreigner people, idiots), the reason England never win anything becomes obvious.
First, it must be said that England aren’t that bad insofar as they’re generally able to qualify for tournaments and get out of the group stage. Their performance in knockout matches is utterly atrocious however, and hasn’t shown any sign of improving over the last forty-six years.
One could reasonably argue that England had terrible luck in the 1990s (West Germany pens, Germany pens), but as the naughts have dragged on, the gap in technical ability between the English national team and its continental counterparts has yawned. This is not some vague impression, but is grounded in empirical fact. As of two years ago for example, England had 2,769 coaches with a UEFA license, as compared to France’s 17,588, Spain’s 23,995, Italy’s 29,420, and Germany’s staggering 34,970.
The English club academy model is severely antiquated compared to that of Germany’s for example, and is only now the focus of improvement by the much-maligned and much-misunderstood Elite Player Performance Plan. Ironically, the plan received vociferous opposition from many of the same scribes decrying England’s player development track in the wake of yet another disappointing tournament for the mens national team, because it allows Premier League clubs to buy youth players from lower league teams, depriving them of a much-needed source of income.
Lost in the hysterical opposition to EPPP is the fact it will also stop big clubs from choosing to buy cheaper overseas players for their youth teams, and provide much better incentives for big clubs to give every opportunity for talented English players to succeed.
It also does away with the “90 mile radius” rule, which prevented domestic academies from selecting players from around the country. It will allow for residency schools and increased coaching time for young, elite footballers.
The fruit of these efforts will likely be seen a decade from now, but even those changes may not be enough to produce a genuinely competitive national team in that time frame. For example England, like Canada, is only now understanding the importance of emphasizing enjoyment rather than competition at youth level, and to ensure all players are given a chance to develop their skills. And EPPP will yield no positive effect unless English coaches are held to a higher licensing standard by the FA (I’ve yet to see any provisions for this in the FA literature that directly requires strict, UEFA coaching standards for top graded academies).
As for the argument that England players can’t be that bad if they play as stars for the best teams in the best league in the world, one does not need to resort to anti-England hysteria to point out that an English-based league will naturally have an English-biased player selection policy, and that playing alongside elite global talent will make a footballer seem like a world beater, and generally make them better players than their skill would otherwise allow.
With some exceptions (Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Joe Hart), England is full of talented but non-exceptional players in relatively elevated positions. Milner plays alongside David Silva, Lescott alongside Vincent Kompany, Ashley Young with Nani…the list goes on. Skilled as these English players are, they are miles behind similar players in Germany, Spain, France, and yes, Italy. If for example the Polish league were as popular as the Premier League, chances are their national team would do marginally better in international tournaments, too.
This morning, the anti-England people are resorting to hyperbole to decry how incredibly awful the team are and how they will never improve because, prima facie, they’re England. Meanwhile the ostensibly pro-England people are penning the same tired op-eds about not playing for the three lions on the shirt. The rest will stick their heads in the sand.
But this isn’t rocket science, and what’s more galling for fans of England is that their nation is perhaps the best poised of any to take advantage of a football-ingrained culture to make the necessary changes to radically improve the national team. Simply shrugging and saying “that’s now how we do things here” is easy for the cynical English pundit, but it’s also stupid. Football culture is not an immovable rock. If perpetural underachievers Spain can do it, so can England. If they want to.