Why the English continue to fail at football

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So tomorrow super Saturday returns, the indomitable Premier League is back. The bandwagon starts again, the national teams humiliations of June and July are forgotten, the pain of Manaus, the ignominy of Sau Paulo and the pointless dejection of Belo Horizonte are now consigned to the football archives.

So the English fans and pundits have brushed of their capitulation to Italy under the carpet, they have plastered over the defeat to Uruguay, and have tried to forget the drab squid that was the match against Costa Rica. Out of sight out of mind, the English have turned their gaze to the sweet sweet honeyed entertainment of the Barclay’s Premier League, they will occasionally itch at the sore that is their national team, occasionally the old pain will flare up if they fail to beat the might of Switzerland and struggle against the Estonian’s and Slovenian’s during the qualifiers for their next international tournament. But invariably England should convincingly see of relative minnows San Marino and Lithuania and that should be enough to see them grace the fields of France for their next international tournament: Euro 2016.

Once the tournament starts the whole nation will collectively cheer on their boys and wholeheartedly believe that they can come home heroes. And invariably the English team will come unstuck and suffer one embarrassing exit or other. At which point there will be general disbelief in the English public, while the media and tabloids get their knives out and slaughter everyone associated with the English team, from the players who have let their country down, to the coaches who are mismanaging the players, to the heads of the FA who have no idea what they are doing, to the kids who haven’t even played in the tournament but who “aren’t playing football the right way” at grassroots level.

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Still what continues to astound me, is that this continues to happen, like clock work, every two years. Invariably every two years England either play in a World Cup or a European Cup (if they qualify) and every two years half the nation really believes that yes this time definitely will be their year, either because Joe Cole is really on form this year (2006) or because the last time England won a World Cup (1966) they had three West Ham players, and now that they have three West Ham players in the squad again (2010) they are bound to win again!

And every time the collective surprise when it fails to be their year is astounding, because it really should be no surprise at all!

So why does England fail? And perhaps more importantly why is this always such a traumatic shock?

Why England fail has been attributed to many many many factors, from the attitudes of the frankly lavishly overpaid players, to out of touch foreign manager, or tactically limited English managers, the Premier League has also been blamed for being too dependent on foreign players and stiffing the growth of English talent. Similarly the lack of English players plying their trade in foreign leagues has also been pointed to. Personally I think the reasons why England fail so spectacularly time and time again link closely with the same reasons as to why it is such a shock when they fail. And that to me is the role of pundits and media. The English media have two favorite hobbies, the first is to build up their heroes, and to sell to us this image of invincible heroes, to feed us this myth of “the golden generation” that there is something special about this particular English team. And the medias second favorite past time is to tear down the heroes and icons they themselves have created.

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The 2002 World Cup as with the 2006 World Cup was the time to shine for this fabled Golden Generation, with “World Class Players” such as Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard et all, and at their head some Swedish cold blooded tactician of a manger, how could they fail? But fail they did, once to a flukey Ronaldinho goal and then to penalties to Portugal. But in both instances their exit was settled on such fine margins that the public could harbor real hope that next time they would do better.

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The wheels started to come of after 2006, the Swedish tactician left the managers seat and in his place came in an English manager, yes the media said, here is someone to bring good old English grit to the national team, bring the team back to its values, no more of this European cautious style of management. England subsequently failed to even qualify to Euro 2008. Despite all the optimism that had come before hand Steve McClaren was roundly criticized and ridiculed and subsequently sacked.

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Roll on the 2010 world cup, England had decided that no the English approach was definitely not the way to go, much better to be tactical and so they hired an Italian. Step in Fabio Capello, initially lauded as a master tactician, like some sort of messiah or footballing mastermind, fast forward to the World Cup and England are trashed 4-1 by Germany in Bloemfontein. Now Capello was roundly ridiculed as out of touch with the English game, news stories started to surface about his failure to engage with his players, doubts were raised about his ability to even speak English. It came as no surprise that his position became untenable and he left the post.

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So for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup England once again returned to an English manager, and following two more painful exits from international tournaments one can’t help but wonder how long till the next European manager is brought in. Because I can kind of see a pattern emerging here.

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Or maybe England just aren’t that good. But that hasn’t stopped teams from winning trophies in the past, lets not forget relative minnows Denmark and Greece both have a European cup to their name, and other teams have ground out unspectacular wins in tournaments. No England’s problem is the sheer weight of expectation. If an Italian or German team grind out a win while playing badly, then we attribute it to professionalism and experience, or playing smart. If England win but do not play spectacularly often times it is treated nearly as a failure. 

I would posit that England’s handicap in the International game is the fact that their players are stifled by the sheer expectations back home. How often do we see exciting young players have a couple of good games for England and overnight become trust into the limelight and regarded as the savior of English football. Almost invariably they buckle under the weight of expectation. Wayne Rooney burst unto the scene in 2004 and has been hailed ever since as England’s only true world class striker. Since then he has only managed one World Cup goal. More recently Jack Wilshere of Arsenal had one good season and a couple of impressive games and was hailed as the next big thing. One or two bad games later and he has seemingly been discarded for the next big things which if the media are to be believed are Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley, not bad players, but how long till they have a few bad games and public opinion turn on them too.

I think the problem ties in with the same reason that English fans are always so surprised when their team fails to live up to their billing, and their idolized players fail to set the world stage on fire when it really matters. And that is that they spend the two years between each tournament being treated by the media to how great their star players are. Ringing eulogies in the papers about how Wayne Rooney dismantled the mighty West Bromwich Albion, or how Steven Gerrard marshaled his team against the unsung might of Cardiff city, This is followed up by English victories against relatively weak teams in qualifying. The bandwagon starts moving, people start to get on board. Pundits write columns about how this upcoming tournament will be different than the last. Hope starts again, then there are the articles and polls about the best England XI to lift the next World Cup or European Cup. 

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And so on and so forth, until the hope becomes an expectation, the exuberation turns into crippling fear of failure, which ultimately leads to another failure and we start again two years later. Ultimately it seems England prefers wasting their efforts wasting column inches fantasizing about winning a World Cup than they are prepared to actually put the effort into understanding why they fail again and again.

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