Monday, 28 June 2010

The English Disease

Despite the fact I owe several people a reply (yes, I mean you Boffy), I can't help but be distracted by the lefty blogosphere's attempt to shoehorn the cautionary tale of the Great South African Football disaster into any available political narrative they'd care to spin.

Exhibit A is provided by Cde Mason from Newsnight:
"Maybe in this World Cup we've seen the first real triumph of the economics of modern football over skill and organisation: the triumph of a club-first, nation-last mentality and individualism over teamwork.....

England's outstanding badness in World Cup 2010 must be a symptom of something bigger: the fact that we've got the most expensive, highest leveraged club system - and that none of our players play outside it - must have contributed to the weakening of commitment to the national colours, the evisceration of upcoming talent, the creation of an unmanageable team of frightened individuals...

Like failed bankers they will pay no penalty for failure other than public opprobrium and, as everybody in high finance knows, you can live with that as long as you own a Lamborghini.

Basically, we've just seen the Lehman Brothers of football and it was not pretty."
Exhibit B is provided by the ever prolific Chris Dillow:
"I blame Taylor. Not Graham Taylor, but Frederick Winslow Taylor.

He invented scientific management. The effect of this was to break down traditional craft work - where manual and physical labour combined - and give us workplaces in which management did the thinking and labourers did the grunt work. This created an iron curtain between intelligence and physical labour not just in the workplace, but in our culture.

The problem is, though, that football needs both brains and physical work.
It’s no accident that the European nation in which craft traditions declined most sharply is also the team that is weakest in those areas where intelligence is most needed.

I mean this is in two senses. First, we are tactically inflexible; Fabio Capello has been criticised for sticking rigidly with 4-4-2, but could this be because he didn’t trust his players to change things?

Secondly, we are under-supplied in positions where intelligence is needed: ... the players capable of changing the tempo of the match; and the ones who can find space and pick out a pass - England has no-one who even vaguely resembles Cesc Fabregas or Mesut Ozil."
So Paul's saying the problem is that English football is a bit too like how the City operates - and that's bad for the country, even if it's good for the big clubs/city firms - and Chris is saying, no, it goes deeper than that: it's the very idea of 'modern' management which is at the root of the problem. But I can't get the faint image of men with hammers defining the problem as a nail out of my mind when I read these thoughts. Because, after all, England has had several people at least as good as Fabregas or Ozil over the years - most especially this pocket genius . It really ain't skill that's the problem - and Capello is clearly a proven manager.

Exhibit C, however, from Jamie K gets closer to the nub of it I think:

"The whole In-ger-lund setup, with all its orchestrated hysteria and commercial hoo-haa is a kind of consolation prize from the EPL to the FA after it seized control over the game: OK, we’ll lend you some of our assets, go whoop up the punters with a load of flag wagging and make a bundle for a few weeks.

..... The EPL is a globalised institution and its major players live within its boundaries. True, they spend more of their actual time in the tax boundary known as the UK, but I bet the life of your average England player has a lot of the same weird affectlessness of life in a gated compound for foreigners in Shanghai, only with added celebrity status to cope with and profit from. ....

So the World Cup is an occasion that brings about a particularly sharp collision between globalisation and national sentiment, both financially driven. ... I think it ... has significant downstream consequences (such as: how do you make a team from an assemblage of players who work in various supporting roles in multinational teams, often with players better than they are). At any rate, it’s a weird atmosphere in which to try and play football."

But this is still not quite right - because, with the exception of the Germans perhaps, this is a condition which affects all modern footballers and all national teams. I think the problem is not with the globalisation per se, but with the particular national sentiment it is in tension with. England is a nation without a state, but one used to assuming that the trappings of a former grand imperial state - Britain - naturally fit it. Hence the chorus of 'Rule Britannia' from the crowd, not 'Jerusalem'. But those old imperial clothes don't fit Britain any more, much less England. So we get this weird and utterly self destructive hysterical neurosis at every big sporting tournament England qualifies for and it affects not just the media and the fans but the team as well.

So my recipe for an England victory at the next World Cup? Let Alex Salmond win his referendum on independence. Cut England down to size in reality, and perhaps the psychic expectation that they deserve to rule the world will die away.

Oh: and pray for a new Paul Scholes to emerge. He scores goals y'know.


  1. Charlie,
    Can I take a bit of a liberty and repeat something I posted over on a football fan site. It seems apposite:

    All my life I have been subjected to the most intense football propaganda that convinced me that England were realistic contenders for every European and World competition they entered.

    When I watched my first World Cup in 1978, England had been victors just 12 years before, which meant that their absence from the tournament in Argentina could be thought of as a hiatus in a story of otherwise national footballing glory.

    Since then I have succumbed to the myth, propagated every four years, that the cup was England’s but for that metatarsal injury, or for the ‘hand of God’ and tricky foreigners, or the incompetence of match officials. This is all propaganda and I simply don’t believe it anymore.

    I’ll tell you what else I don’t believe (and this is heresy in some parts). I don’t believe that the third England goal in the ‘66 final crossed the line. I suspect that the rest of the world has always known this, but then again they have not been exposed to the sort of propaganda that we encounter regularly in the UK.

    The rest of the world also knows that there was a concerted effort to keep the home nation in the ’66 tournament to guarantee high gate receipts, so there is more than a whiff of controversy about the red card shown the Argentinean captain, Antonio Rattin, in the quarter final against England. The south American was dismissed by for ‘violence of the tongue’ despite the German referee knowing not a word of Spanish.

    Now in the aftermath of Germany’s 4-1 drubbing of England I can honestly say that the last vestiges of the erroneous belief that this generation of young English players, or that generation, or any generation is the ‘golden’ one have left me.

    England have produced middling football teams for as long as I can remember. Whatever the individual talents on show the team has always seemed to fall short of the sum of its parts. Sure, there have been glimpses, rare moments of magic, but never anything sustained. England expects. England’s football team disappoints. England’s fans and pundits offer a rash of reasons and recriminations.

    Those who get closest to the real reasons for England’s malodorous performances look for structural reasons, like youth policies, the number of foreign players in the Premiership, the political economy of a sport where clubs pay exorbitant wages to young men who then never look quite as committed to the less lucrative cause of their country.

    But I’d like to suggest another reason why England underperform. I don’t offer this as the definitive reason, but one among a number. And it is this: there is something in the English national character that predisposes her majesty’s subjects to a grossly inflated sense of the country’s place in the world; a legacy of once imperial greatness that fuels a sense of inherent superiority that turns to hurt indignation when the nation’s representatives don’t deliver glory.

    England’s footballers carry such unrealistic expectations upon their young shoulders, is it any wonder they looked fearful and frigid in this World Cup?

    Karl Marx once said that the ‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ He was writing about the French Revolution but the phrase could be applied to the English football team. In at least 3 of the 4 games they played in this world cup they looked haunted, like they are living with every patriotic ghost, from 1066 to 1966.

    Old ‘Arry Redknap made an interesting point after the Germany game, when he pointed out that England need to play a more ‘modern’ style of football. He’s probably dead right. But England also needs a new sense of itself in this post-imperial era that doesn’t rely on an identity that is shackled by perceived former glories. It could start with a new national anthem...

  2. Note to Rest of World:

    Please consider the post above to have been entirely crossed out and replaced with the words:

    " Wot Rab Said"

  3. So in short, Charlie: Wot you said.

    "So my recipe for an England victory at the next World Cup? Let Alex Salmond win his referendum on independence. Cut England down to size in reality, and perhaps the psychic expectation that they deserve to rule the world will die away."

    Interestingly, some of the most intelligent comment about England's world cup exit is to be read at blogs and web-sites not normally associated with footballing comments, such as your own and Paul Mason's.

    I posted my previous comment at a football fan site and am now under armed guard for casting spurious allegations about the integrity of England's '66 victory.

  4. Rab
    Those who the Gods wish to destroy, they first encourage to post on a football discussion forum.

    The thing is that most fans at big clubs - those with a realistic chance of wining something most years - really don't give a monkeys about the England team anyway. Look at the banners at any England game: they're not from Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal - they're from places like Gillingham, Rotherham and Port Vale.

    These little clubs lose all the time, so their supporters pin their hopes on a mythical English triumph, based on undigested imperial nostalgia. This meshes with braying of the jingoist tabloids and the upswell of attention from the broad mass of 'not-really-interested-in-football-but-want-to see-England-do-well-and-oh-is-Andy-Murray-through-to the quarter-finals?'type folk. It's a toxic mix.

    Interestingly, on the United tat websites, you can buy a leather passport holder embossed with the legend: Property of the Republik of Mancunia'. Ian Brown of the Stone Roses seems to agree

    On balance, I think this is one of the upsides of globalisation.

    P.S. What has the world come too when West Ham fans need a armed guard?!? Time was the ICF would have scared the pants off everyone else....

  5. You missed Comrade Barnes' take on the situation then Charlie?

  6. Welcome Dave,

    Splinty obviously has better antennae than me on football trivia.

    But I seem to recall from Dave Hill's rather fine book - him that Barnes is the son of a Jamaican general or something like that and had a fairly strict, traditional up bringing with lots of back bone stiffening and quasi military discipline. So I suspect his idea of 'socialism' is more akin to 'loyalty to the regiment' than anything else.

    But,hey - a good friend of mine once observed that the only thing you can be assured of in any conversation about football is the lack of quality control. Why should ex-players be any different from the rest of us?