June 28, 2010 16 Comments
The only problem with that is the England football team so rarely delivers to anywhere the expectations of the nation. And yesterday’s lame exit from the 2010 World Cup is hardly an isolated example of under-performance at major tournaments. It’s time we faced up to facts: we’re a good team, but we’re not that good.
The morning after the afternoon before
I’ve calmed down somewhat since I posted my initial thoughts on England’s 4-1 defeat to Germany yesterday. Although, to be honest, I wasn’t so much angry as resigned. In spite of the controversy over assistant referee Mauricio Espinosa‘s failure to realise Frank Lampard‘s shot had crossed the goalline, it was all too apparent that Germany had been superior in every department. It’s hard to stay mad for long in those circumstances.
Rather than dwell on what might have been, the question now facing England, the FA and coach Fabio Capello is simply: where do we go from here?
As a blogger, I currently feel a strange kinship with the England team. Like England, over the past couple of weeks my work-rate and output have been high, but I can’t seem to locate that sweet spot in my writing which effortlessly leads to high-quality results. The harder I try, the more elusive that form becomes. I know I should be doing better, and don’t understand why I’m not.
That’s where the comparison ends, though. I don’t claim to be a world-class writer, and I don’t receive a penny for doing so. But I’m not fundamentally dissatisfied with that, whereas it is clear to an objective eye that, to paraphrase Hamlet, something is rotten in the state of the England national team.
It is not my intention here to hold some kind of inquest, post-mortem or even witch-hunt. I will leave that to those involved with the England set-up and those ‘experts’ in the media who are well practised in knowing a bandwagon when they see one.
I prefer to deal in facts rather than poorly-informed opinion, so let’s start with some simple ones.
England went to South Africa with the oldest squad in the tournament, so they were not lacking experience. It is also the most highly-paid squad at the World Cup, with all 23 players drawn from the self-proclaimed best league in the world, and led by the most highly-paid national coach.
The squad was not quite at full strength, but it was not far off. Team captain and best defender, Rio Ferdinand, withdrew injured just before the tournament. And the experience of David Beckham and Michael Owen was also unavailable, but neither were guaranteed selections and both would have been fringe contributors at best. But Germany are without the injured Michael Ballack; Ghana without Michael Essien, one of the finest all-round midfielders on the planet – and both these nations are in the quarter-finals, having played good football in doing so.
History demonstrates England are serial under-achievers
Looking back to previous tournaments, it is clear that England have a long-established history of fading away rapidly once the knockout stages commence. Here is how we have done in the last ten major tournaments since the heady days of the 1990 World Cup:
- Euro 2008 – Did not qualify.
- World Cup 2006 – Beat Ecuador in round-of-16, lost to Portugal on penalties in quarter-final.
- Euro 2004 – Lost to Portugal on penalties in quarter-final.
- World Cup 2002 – Beat Denmark in round-of-16, lost to ten-man Brazil in quarter-final.
- Euro 2000 – Knocked out in group phase.
- World Cup 1998 – Lost to Argentina on penalties in round-of-16.
- Euro 1996 (host) – Beat Spain on penalties in quarter-final, lost to Germany on penalties in semi-final.
- World Cup 1994 – Did not qualify.
- Euro 1992 – Knocked out in group phase.
All that adds up to England having reached the knockout stages in just six of the last ten major tournaments. And when we have made it that far, we have won just three of nine matches – only two inside 90 minutes – with the other being a penalty shootout at Wembley after a dire 0-0 draw against what was then a decidedly mediocre Spain side.
I’ll say that again: ten tournaments, three wins in knockout games, and just the one semi-final, which came with the benefit of home advantage.
And before we go all dewy-eyed, Gazza-style, about 1990, here are the basic facts of England’s tournament that year:
- Group phase: Drew with Republic of Ireland 1-1, drew with Holland 0-0, beat Egypt 1-0.
- Round-of-16: Beat Belgium 1-0 after extra time, with David Platt‘s 119th minute goal avoiding a penalty shootout at the death.
- Quarter-final: Beat Cameroon 3-2 after extra time, with Gary Lineker scoring an 83rd-minute penalty to force the extra period, and then adding a second penalty in the 105th minute.
- Semi-final: Lost to Germany on penalties (1-1 after extra time). Gazza’s tears, plus Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle‘s missed spot kicks in the shootout.
The group phase performance in 1990 exactly mirrors England’s results in South Africa, after which they were unable to beat two middling opponents in the regulation 90 minutes, before going out against the first truly good side they faced. To be fair, England could so easily have won that 1990 semi-final, but I think my point remains valid: England generally lose knockout games against good opponents.
It was never realistic to expect England to win this World Cup. Indeed, a FIFA ranking of eight would suggest that we should have been quarter-finalists, at best. And England’s fate was effectively sealed by failure to win their group, pitching them into the same quarter of the draw as Germany and Argentina, who will now face off for a place in the semi-finals.
So now it is back to the drawing board for England and the FA, and the beginning of the end for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’, many of whom will have to face departure from international football within the next year or two. England started this World Cup with the oldest team at the tournament, with an average age of over 28. By the time the Euro 2012 tournament kicks off, Emile Heskey and Jamie Carragher will be 34; Matthew Upson will be 33 and Frank Lampard just 12 days shy of that particular milestone; Steven Gerrard will be 32; Ashley Cole, John Terry, Peter Crouch, Gareth Barry and the ever-injured Ledley King will all be 31; even relative youngsters Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Michael Carrick will be the wrong side of 30. Some of the aforementioned will no doubt feature alongside the likes of Wayne Rooney, Aaron Lennon and James Milner in Poland and the Ukraine – assuming, of course, that England get there – but many will expect to be phased out, or at least marginalised, over the course of a qualifying campaign which begins in just ten weeks’ time.
And, of course, there is the small question of who will lead them there. In successive World Cups, England’s players have failed to gel under both the relaxed Sven-Göran Eriksson/Steve McClaren regime and the more disciplinarian Capello. There appears to be something cancerous in the culture and mindset of this set of players which needs to be excised.
It goes beyond a lack of ability and confidence, or even the coach’s shortcomings, and it is not something that will be easy to fix until the composition of the squad changes significantly. The first step in that process is for the players to recognise that they must shoulder some of the blame for a dire set of performances at this World Cup, rather than point the finger at everyone else, as many are sure to do.
Without suggesting that baby needs to be thrown out without bath-water, there is clearly more work to be done than simply shrugging the shoulders and sticking a plaster over a gaping wound. Will the 64-year old Capello have either the inclination or the patience for what could be a lengthy rebuilding job?
Capello has already said he will discuss his future with FA chairman Dave Richards on his return to London. If the Italian walks away from England – my money says that he may well do – the FA will have a difficult decision to make. Do they go for another big name foreign coach, or make an appointment closer to home? If the latter, the name of Roy Hodgson – a manager who can boast two spells at Inter Milan and stints as the national coach of three different countries (Switzerland, Finland, UAE) on his CV – must surely be high on the shortlist.
But for now it is time for the Three Lions – or should that be Three Pussycats? – to lick their wounds and retreat home with a sorry tail between their legs. It is difficult to predict how everyone will respond to this latest setback, but the most pressing challenge now is how to re-energise and potentially start repopulating the squad before the grind of tournament qualifying is upon us again in early September. It is time to look to the future, but without sweeping the lessons of this rotten campaign under the carpet.