Monday, September 25, 2017

The English Delusion

By David Hall

The English national team is nowhere near good enough to win the World Cup. This tournament made that clear and so did the last one. What concerns me chiefly in this article is the quadrennial failure of the English to see this. A society’s inability to look reality squarely in the eye is a worrying trait; more worrying still is a society’s inability to discern it. And it isn’t just the fans. The nation’s top football reporters also thought England could win. They said as much, in print and on TV. Unless they are guilty of shameless hypocrisy, we must assume that they meant what they said.

There are many reasons for England’s failure – tactics, selection, and formation among them. But if a society’s collective delusions are to be lifted and progress to be made, it is vital to appreciate that all these factors are secondary, because nothing counts as much as quality. I stress this because it is the very quality of the so-called ‘golden generation’ that has always been taken for granted, inviting the soothing post-tournament rationalisation that the quality was there, it was just that England didn’t show it. Yet the really significant point about the need to bring Joe Cole in sooner is not that Capello erred in the first place by excluding him (though he did), but that it exposed how lacking England were in players with the technical gifts to succeed (or even impress) on the world stage. That Frank Lampard’s shot against Germany was over the line and should have counted as an equaliser must not be allowed to mask the fact that Germany’s young side outclassed their vastly more experienced English opponents in technical ability, creativity, tempo and pace. Holland, without playing particularly well, won their group stage with maximum points; England finished second in a so-called ‘easy’ group. Algeria practically passed them off the pitch.

Tactics. Selection. Formation. These are the responsibility of the coach. Recoiling in embarrassment from the disastrous decision to appoint Steve McLaren (The-Man-who-wasn’t-Hiddink), the FA went to the other extreme and appointed Fabio Capello, a highly successful club coach with a pseudo-patrician manner and a private art collection worth millions. Capello, they felt sure, would command the respect of England’s millionaire players, being a millionaire himself. Disdaining matey monikers like “Wazza” and “Stevie G”, he made surnames the order of the day. He made the players eat together, and switch off their mobile phones at table. The press loved him for it, especially when England qualified.

But Capello, paid a salary of six million pounds per annum, had never managed at international level; he had no experience of taking a team to a World Cup, of leading it through the Group Stages, or the last 16, or the Quarter-Finals, or beyond. Yet his job description might be summed up as follows: to get England to the semis, at least. In other words, everything preceding that stage was taken for granted, based on the record of England’s previous managers, and on the talent-base from which Fabio could expect to draw.

Now here’s the point: in no other area of life – not in Medicine, Law or Banking – would a professional organisation appoint and pay six million pounds to a man with no experience of exactly the level at which (and of precisely the context within which) he was expected to succeed. Looking at it this way brings the FA’s folly in appointing Capello into shocking focus. In the event, he didn’t even get England to the Quarter-Finals, the point at which – given his job description – he was to begin to earn his money. Six million a year, sports fans.

Most people don’t understand numbers (if they did, they wouldn’t do the lottery). I’m none too hot on them myself, but some simple arithmetic tells me that six million a year at a risk-free interest rate of 3% on gilt-edged securities yields a man £180,000 per annum. That’s £15,000 a month for life, with no risk of the initial six million disappearing – which, you would think, would be more than enough for most people. Except, it seems, Fabio Capello, a man with a private art collection. For if Capello was not, like Sven-Goran Eriksson, a slave to money (what else but the myopic effect of greed blinds a man to the ‘fake Sheik’?), the siren-like call of spondulicks was sufficiently strong for him to commit a crass error of judgement on the eve of the squad’s departure, in endorsing the ‘Capello Index’. (Incidentally, any football manager who can afford to spend his wages on building up a private art collection is being paid too much: the art market effectively exists to separate the ultra-rich from their cash).

So Capello must take his share of the blame, but he must not be used as a scapegoat (particularly given the fact that he is not English). For the plain truth is that the technical skills which allow a side to move the ball from defence to attack with penetrating swiftness, and the creativity needed to open up increasingly tight defences, were no more evident in England’s play in 2010 than they were in 2006. Whatever Algeria lacked in the final third of the pitch, man for man they were more comfortable on the ball than England. The real point isn’t that the three lions played badly and went home without the trophy. It is that they were never good enough to win it in the first place.

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