The Underlying Problem…

29 06 2010

For me, Capello has got it right. His comments about the dearth of English quality coming through the ranks of the top teams really do hit the nail squarely on the head. And it is this which ties in with what I wrote a couple of days ago. The big guns of the England team (Terry, Lampard, Ferdinand, Gerrard) are all on their way out. They should be peripheral figures come the European Championships in 2012 (assuming, of course, that England make it there). The absence of good young players is a concern for Fabio, and only serves to prove, I think, that England should consider themselves at best a mediocre team.

Don’t get me wrong, there is, as Capello has acknowledged, some potential. Jack Wilshere and Kieron Gibbs of Arsenal look promising, but still too raw for the pressures of international football. Likewise Dan Gosling and Jack Rodwell at Everton look to have potential. However, these cases are few and far between. That Capello has admitted he would have taken Zamora if he had been fit is indicative of the level this country is at in footballing terms. Zamora had a good season, don’t get me wrong, but he is not a world-class striker, and never has been. One good season does not compensate for the comparatively poor ones which went before (I think he scored only a handful of goals the season before last in pretty much the same Fulham team).

There is no-one coming through the ranks at the top sides which makes you sit up and think that England may have a bright future. FIFA’s home-grown players initiative may help the cause of the English youth, but being an obligatory name on a squad sheet is very different to being a regular club starter with world-class potential. And herein lies the problem, working out what else can be done? If the genuinely world-class talent isn’t there, there is nothing that can be done about it. All the top clubs are scouting kids as young as 7 or 8, and signing them up. The clubs put these kids through the ranks, teach them and train them in the ways of football, and yet they very often fail to make the grade as a top-class pro. They are just not good enough.

There’s an old footballing mantra which says that if you are good enough, you are old enough. The reason Rooney was picked for the Everton team was because he was good enough for it. Likewise there is a reason why the top teams do not have many Englishmen in them. Because of this, the national team is forced to take players to major tournaments who are not world-class, but are either peripheral club figures (Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips), or just patently not good enough (Matthew Upson or Emile Heskey). Hence, really it should be no surprise that we struggled to a 4-1 defeat in the last 16 tie.

The footballing future of England is not bright, it is barely a dull glow. All the problems in terms of tactics and team selections which I wrote about the other day do matter, but if there is nothing coming through the ranks for the future then these problems become almost minor. It has been very frustrating to hear the commentators talking about the ‘next big thing’ from other nations throughout the tournament, all the while wondering where our ‘next big thing’ is. The point is, our last ‘big things’ have thus far failed, and whilst Rooney (still without a World Cup goal) and Walcott (not even on the plane) may have to carry this label for a little while longer, this expectation is on two players who (especially in the latter’s case) have thus far failed to prove anything more than the fact that they are pretty good  club players. The concern for England should not be about this years failure, it should be about the likely failure in years to come.


Bitter Reality…

27 06 2010

After writing about the fall of France last week, it seems only just that I also write about England’s continuing failing on the world stage. England’s hopes of World Cup glory, almost fatally extinguished when Emile Heskey lunged into Rio Ferdinand before the tournament started, finally ended with a 4-1 defeat to the Germans.

There are numerous things to write about England, and most will be in the next few days. I have just a few thoughts on the state of the national team. The first is that the squad Fabio Capello took to South Africa was flawed. Taking two centre-backs who have had at best mediocre seasons (Carragher and Upson) , and with two nursing continuing injuries (Ferdinand and King), leaving John Terry to fight the world’s best forwards almost alone. Taking and continually using players who have pace but no end product (Wright-Phillips and Lennon), whilst leaving Adam Johnson, a natural left-footed option, at home was frustrating.

This moves me onto the selection process. The continual use of Heskey as a striking option whilst leaving Crouch (who has somewhere near a 1 in 2 goal/game ratio) on the bench was mightily frustrating. The absence of Joe Cole from much of the tournament must also be questioned, although in his outings, he failed to show much to prove he was the solution to England’s ailments. The selection of Carragher and King was bemusing, and ultimately failed to inspire confidence in Matthew Upson, who had a solid, if not spectacular qualifying campaign as John Terry’s defensive partner. Likewise picking, and then dropping Rob Green was another poor moment from Capello. Indeed, his substitutions failed to inspire confidence, further highlighting the limitations of the squad as a whole.

However, the personnel could, and should have worked, in the right system. This is where Capello, who is, let us not forget, one of the games great managers, ultimately came undone. Starting with the bemusing selection of Steven Gerrard, the newly appointed captain, on the left of midfield, and there is only one conclusion to reach: Capello was wrong. Argentina play Messi in his favourite position. Brazil play Robinho in his favourite position (and he once again looks like a world beater after being played out of position in England). Spain play Xavi in has favourite position. The point is made I feel. For Capello to fail to recognise Gerrard’s potential in the English central midfield position seems to be almost scarily naive. The clamour for him to play behind Rooney was there for a reason, yet ignored by Capello.

Moving onto the continued insistence of using wide players. In theory I have nothing against pacy wide men. They can pull the game forward and inspire the crowd and team. So using Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips was not, in itself a bad thing (despite SWP having a mediocre season in and out of Man City’s team). The failure to utilise their pacy potential was a fault in the team. Too often the men were there but not used by the English central midfielders. If England were to use them to stretch teams, then they failed to put this plan into practise. Too often these men were ignored or crowded out. The times they got the ball they had to move inside to allow the attacking intent of the full-backs to shine through. On those rare occasions they managed to beat their man, they had little or no substantial end product.

We have frequently been told about the ‘golden generation’ which seems to consist of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand and Rooney. All failed to have an impact at this tournament (although, to give Ferdinand his due, he never even got there). The label was never going to help the England team, but the frustration is that the players never seem to give the same for their country as their clubs. For me it seems that the players go from being the big fish in their respective club ponds to the international set-up. They all think they are the big thing with the ability to take on the world, without working out the element of being in a ‘team’. There are not enough good team players who are content with being second-fiddle to the big players. They do not work in the same way they do with their clubs because they are used to there being someone who will do the covering for them. At international level there is not this escape.

If we add this to what seems to be a genuinely paralysing fear of playing for England, then the recipe is there for failure. Capello has failed to overcome this international paralysis, despite appearances to the contrary in qualifying. However, for me there is something else which has to change, namely the national psyche.

For too long we have been told how good our players are, and have expected them to be world-beaters. It is time we as a public realised that these players and this team are not a top-four side. They are barely a top 16 side. That is the bitter reality. I feel that if the expectation is dropped by the public, then this will have a beneficial effect on the team. We have, for too long expected too much from the England team. For the 2012 European championships we need to have a lower expectation. A quarter-final might be our best result. Let us not forget that this is pretty much the same team which failed to qualify for the last Euros. They have done little to convince as anything other than a mediocre team, so the irrational expectation and demand that they do well in tournaments is foolish at best. Let England aim for the 1/4 finals in the Euros. That should be enough. We do not have a world class team. We do have world class players, but the two are very different things. Until the two demonstrate that they have been successfully melded together over a continued period of time, we the public, should accept that we are not that good an international side.

The fall and fall…

18 06 2010

There was something almost poetic about it last night. As his team struggled to a 2-0 defeat, Thierry Henry sat desolate on the bench, huddled up against the South African chill. The irony is that Henry’s plight mimics his country’s almost exactly. Here was a player, once the best in the world, who now struggles to command any authority either on the pitch or off of it. That Domenech, the under pressure French coach (who incidentally is leaving after the finals) chose to ignore Henry when his team were so struggling to show any form of creative intent is a sign that, despite picking him for one last hurrah, Henry’s international career is all but over.

Lacking the pace which once made him so feared, Henry must now rely on his close control and speed of thought. But increasingly the signs are that even these are deserting him. A peripheral figure now at Barcelona, the rumours abound that he will move to America to see out the remaining few years of his career. Of course Wenger spotted this a long time ago, and sold him (to much consternation from the Arsenal fans) to Barcelona, much in the same way he sold Vieira a few years before. Wenger had spotted that both were at the top of their career hills. The only way was down. Indeed for Henry, his one significant moment for club or country in recent times was the infamous handball against Ireland last autumn. That is what he has become.

Yet many do not despise him for that handball. There is, I feel, more a sense of pity growing for him. People are feeling sorry for him. Once the outstanding player in England and Europe, Henry would score goals for fun, and make very able players look foolish. Now his star is waning, to the point of going out. The parallels are there to be seen. France, for so long reliant upon the skill of Zidane and Henry and who won the World Cup and European Cup in two balmy years for French football, and who only lost the last World Cup on penalties, are now struggling to get out of their group, having struggled to get into their group in the first place. Where once Zidane lit up the pitch, Ribery now fails to do the same, despite being the stand-out Frenchman. Where once Henry terrorised defences, Anelka, Cisse et al now have all the scariness of the Easter Bunny. France just are no longer a force in world football.

Don’t get me wrong, the players they have are good players. They are not world-class though, even the talented Ribery would not get into most world XI’s. The manager is pretty rubbish, and it seems a minor miracle that he has stayed in his job so long. When he had Zidane and co to inspire his team it was easy for Domenech. Now it isn’t. The next manager is going to have a tough job restoring France to former glory.

I don’t lament the fall and fall of France. I do lament the fall of Henry. It should not be forgotten what he gave to football. An integral part of Arsene Wenger’s fluid passing footballing team for many teams, Henry scored all sorts of goals, and dazzled crowds across the world. The end of his career is nigh, but we should all remember his impact upon football. And, despite his handball, Henry should be remembered as one of the great sportsmen, on and off the pitch. The trouble is, that one moment in Paris last year will tarnish how he is remembered by the sport. It shouldn’t, but it will.

World in Motion…

11 06 2010

And so, after months of waiting, after months of hearing everyone from the PM (probably) down to the postman speculating about it, and after months of ill-conceived hype, the World Cup kicks off today. Which is great if, like me you love football. Perhaps not so great if you are one of the many who doesn’t enjoy watching or hearing about the game, or indeed, having it stuffed down your throat by every television and radio channel this side of Mars. Fortunately Big Brother began again on Wednesday, so perhaps there is an alternative to watching the football after all. If you enjoy watching nobodies wasting their lives in a fish-bowl environment.

Anyway, regardless of what you think about football, you cannot begrudge the impact the sport has worldwide. Let us not forget that South Africa is a country which is still rebuilding, which is still trying to overcome racism issues, violence issues and medical issues. Let us not forget that in the grand scheme of things 20 years since the end of apartheid isn’t really that long. But also let us not forget that winning the World Cup bid has transformed the country. On a practical level, infrastructure has been forced to improve, with roads, rail and other transport links all having to be upgraded. Tourism facilities have also had to be improved to cope with the sheer number of people expected to be in the country for the next month. These are not temporary changes. Yes, they have been done for the World Cup, but it is the legacy which is of even greater significance. Add to this the windfall the country will receive  from tourism and FIFA and this money will surely help development even further.

The World Cup will also unite the country, just as the Rugby World Cup did back in 1994. It will make South Africa a place where there are, at least for a month, no class divides and no racial divides. There is just a love for the sport. A passion which is stronger than all the divides in even the most deeply divided places.

The lasting memory of my trip to Africa five years ago was playing football with the local school children in a rural village nestled in the heart of a small mountain range. The smiles on their faces, the enjoyment of the sport and the freedom they had whilst playing was just a joy to behold. This was a village in rural Tanzania, and yet I would expect the reaction to be the same almost worldwide. Show some children a football and they will know what to do with it. You only have to look at the multi-cultural nature of the British leagues to know that this is true. Football has the unique power to pull people together, to inspire people and to overcome, at least temporarily, any problems.

I’m not sure there are many things in the world which could place the delegates of North and South Korea next to each other, but football managed it a few days ago when Sepp Blatter (of whom I have been more than critical) was talking about a similar thing. For all people may dislike the sport because of the growing commercialism associated with it (recently health agencies were critical of FIFA for having so many unhealthy sponsors of the tournament), you cannot begrudge the power of the sport. I’m hoping that this tournament will be a success, remembered for all the right reasons. I’m also hoping that the legacy of the tournament will live longer than the memory of it.