You’d think so to listen to all the wailing and gnashing of teeth there’s been since England were dumped into the outer darkness of non-qualification for Euro 2008! Nothing illustrates better the English character trait of self-deprecation than our chest-beating response to sporting failure. How different the reaction would have been had we held on to the 2-2 score line! Then it would have been a ‘dogged fight back’: the ‘never-say-die Dunkirk spirit’ whereby our ‘under-par side’ had determinedly held on to qualification. Not pretty but professional and effective. A very English defeat that was, then, and a very English victory that wasn’t: overhyped and self-depreciating in equal measure.
I should say that, as a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur, I’m used to making excuses for footballing under-achievement! But was England’s failure as abject as people are making out? Let’s look at the facts: we were without our two most influential and experienced defenders, including the captain John Terry. We were also without two world-class, match-winning strikers, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen. This absence of key team members was compounded by the coach’s error in dropping the goalkeeper Paul Robinson in favour of Scott Carson, who’d never played a full international, let alone one as crucial as this one. This created extra uncertainty in defence, with a group of defenders not used to playing with each other joined by a new keeper lacking the confidence to boss his area. I’m sure that had Robinson played, the first goal would never have happened; and had Terry and Ferdinand been on the pitch, the striker who ghosted in for the second would have been picked up and blocked.
This lack of leadership also translated itself to midfield. Why did McLaren insist on playing both Gerrard and Lampard, when they hardly ever work well together, and seem to cramp each other’s style and natural tendency to impose their stamp on midfield? Gerrard should have been played on his own (and substituted by Lampard if it wasn’t working out) with someone like Owen Hargreaves in the anchor role, where he displayed such flair in another crucial game: in the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal in 2006. And then to change the formation to 3-5-1-1 – or whatever it was they played – rather than stick with predictable old 4-4-2, which at least was working, is absolutely daft for such a big match.
All of which must give the impression that I do think the performance was inept. Yes, mistakes were made; but there was also not a little misfortune. There aren’t many teams missing four of their top players who would have been unaffected by their absence, something which was largely unremarked upon amid the orgy of self-castigation. I’m sure the Croatians would have been greatly encouraged by the fact their names were missing from the team sheet.
And what about the Croatians? Sure, they’re not Brazil, although they had a Brazilian playing for them! But there’s a rather arrogant assumption being made that it was especially humiliating that England’s defeat should come at the hands of such a small, ‘insignificant’ nation with a population about 8% that of England’s. What have the Croatians ever done in football, people say? Well, Croatia has existed as an independent country for only 16 years, and in that time, they’ve been regular qualifiers for the World Cup and the European Championship; they even reached the semi-final of the World Cup in 1998, beating Germany in the process. The former Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was a part, was also quite a footballing force and reached the final of the European Nations Cup twice in the 1960s, which is more than England have done.
In other words, you could compare Croatia in football terms to a country like Holland: small but with a distinguished tradition and elevated skill level. The latter was certainly in evidence last Wednesday as they gave the highly paid English stars a run for their money. But what was most impressive, I thought, was the level of commitment and energy they brought into winning a game where they didn’t even need a draw, doubtless spurred on by the roars of their 4,000-odd supporters who conspicuously out-shouted their normally more vocal English counterparts. Here’s a country only recently set free from the shackles of a larger state where they were dominated by their age-old neighbours and rivals, the Serbs; and the players seemed to really inject their game with patriotic pride and a will to win.
Now, what does that remind us of? ‘Scotland the Brave’, goes out the cry from north of the border! Maybe the rejuvenation of the Scottish football team also owes not a little to the boost to Scotland’s national pride that has been provided by the establishment of limited self-government and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that Scotland now actually has a meaningful official status as a distinct nation – which England does not. But Scotland also went out of the tournament, admittedly in the face of sterner opposition than England (both world champions Italy and France being in their group). However, for Scotland, their team’s unlucky last-minute downfall to the Italians was a heroic defeat. A similar loss by England would have been viewed by the media as farcical and inadequate just as was last Wednesday’s rude lesson administered at the hands of the Croatians. Deservedly so, one might well say: the Croatians are to the English what the Scots are to the Italians, in both population and footballing terms. But if you’re going to adopt that argument, then you’d have to say that it was to be expected that England should be pipped to the post by the much more numerous Russians – except that, on the balance of the two games between them, England got the better of the Russians. And you’d fancy both Croatia and England to beat Scotland more times than not; and Croatia also beat Italy at the 2002 World Cup group stage.
The point of all this is that the size of the population has nothing to do with it. After all, when it comes down to it, it’s still a case of 11 players on each side (or 21 players in each squad). A team is greater than the sum of its parts, and the Croatian team were fired up by their patriotic pride and will to win to achieve a little bit of greatness that belies the size of their country. It’s this above all that’s lacking from the England team and the organisation of the national side in general. There are many reasons for this: the much greater priority that is placed on the club game than on the national team; the fact that it’s the clubs predominantly that pay the players’ exorbitant wages and offer footballers at that level their most realistic chance of winning trophies – so they don’t want to go and get injured playing for England; and the fact that so many Premier League clubs prefer the short cut to success of bringing in imported talent for less cost than English players (see Blame Gordon Brown for England’s defeat) rather than making the longer-term investments in home-grown football skills. In this, football is a bit of a metaphor for modern Britain itself: commercial interests and selfish ambition dominate at the expense of opportunities for working-class people from our own country; and English football, in the guise of the Premier League, is offered up as a lucrative media product to a global market. So world superstars are what have to be served up to the paying public; not working-class lads being given a chance to make it for their local team.
Or promising talent being given a chance to make it through the national team . . .. Maybe the way to counteract the lack of motivation to play for one’s country for its own sake is to build an England team from the kind of young, raw talent that is not being given so much of a chance to make it in the club game. Perhaps the next England manager should bypass the egos and agents that exploit the national team as a form of self-promotion and product placement, and with whom the commercial managers at the FA are blandly complicit. The new coach should get together a group of talented youngsters who can be motivated to see the England side as the primary avenue through which they can strive for greatness and success in football, rather than the club game. There are plenty of gifted young footballers at Premier League or Championship clubs who are not being given the opportunity to establish themselves as first-team regulars and who are unlikely to ever win anything in the era of the dominance of the Top Four along with a few also-rans. Well, perhaps they should be given the chance to establish themselves as England regulars, and let’s forget about the superstars whose loyalty lies with their clubs. In this way, a true team can be developed: players who grow up together and get used to playing – and who want to play – for each other and for England. The England team and set up could become something along the lines of what top football clubs used to be: places where young English talent can be nurtured, trained and built into a winning combination that is greater than the sum of its parts.
England needs a football team whose players want to win for England more than for themselves and their clubs – just like the Croatians last week. That, together with official nation status that will eventually come from an English parliament or independence, could provide the injection of pride that England needs to achieve success at international football. Indeed, can there be success at international level unless we truly wish to achieve greatness and succeed as a nation?