English football: a realistic review

With England now out of the World Cup, I can breathe a sigh of relief and blog about football.

The shocking thing about England wasn’t their humiliation against Germany; it wasn’t even the poor performances. It was the deluded expectation that we would win it. I consider myself a fairly measured, cautious kind of fellow, so I wasn’t expecting too much, but the press (and massive corporate sponsors) get people worked up with their “THIS IS OUR YEAR” bullshit.

Let me be clear: England don’t have a terrible team. We have an ok team. We did better than Italy. We did better than France. And games turn on tiny things – we were woeful against Germany but had Lampard’s goal been given, who knows what might have been. That’s not to gloss over the fact that we were crap, merely to point our the possibilities that always exist in a game as frantic as football.

There’s a kind of collective hysteria in England about our football team. Every four years the usual suspects (Hansen, Shearer, Venables, Redknapp) trot out the same lines about how we’ve got world-class players and how there’s 5 or 6 teams who could win the World Cup and how England are one of them. And this hysteria totally and utterly contradicts the overwhelming body of evidence that shows that England aren’t very good at international football.

Let’s take a look at how England have historically done in World Cups:

Our first World Cup was in 1950. We got knocked out in the first round. In 1954 we got to the quarter-finals. In 1958 we got knocked out in the first round. In 1962 we got to the quarter-finals. In 1966, playing at home, we won the World Cup! Hooray! In 1970 we made it to the quarter-finals. In 1974 and 1978 we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. In 1982 we made it to the 2nd round. In 1986 we made it to the quarter-finals. In 1990 we made it to the semi-finals. In 1994 we didn’t qualify. In 1998 we made it to the last 16. In 2002 and 2006 we made it to the quarter-finals and in 2010 we made it to the last 16.

Show those statistics to a neutral (I don’t know. Someone from India or Belize) and they’d think: “Oh, so England have an ok team. They consistently qualify for the World Cup and then they mostly make it out of the group stages, but they rarely get to the latter stages of the competiton.”

And they would be right. In the 44 years since we won the World Cup, we’ve managed to get to one semi-final. Other teams to have made at least one semi-final appearance since 1966 include those footballing titans South Korea, Turkey, Croatia, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belgium and Poland.  In other words, plenty of other teams have matched England’s acheivements.

In contrast, if you look at teams like Italy, France, Brazil, Germany and Argentina, these teams have, over the last 30 years, fairly regularly gotten to the latter stages of the World Cup. Since England won the trophy in 1966, Brazil have won it 3 times. Germany, Argentina and Italy have all won it twice.

In domestic terms, England are probably about the same as a team like Aston Villa in the FA Cup. We can expect to beat a few of the lower teams and on our day, none of the big teams will relish playing against us, but very few people would put money on us actually winning the competition. But with Aston Villa, I’d imagine that the fans are more realistic about their chances: they probably don’t believe they’ve got the best team in the competition, or that they are likely to win. They know that the likes of Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal and others all have better squads and a better track record. So they do their best but don’t get massive delusions of grandeur.

None of this is to say that England are shit; we’re not. We’re quite a good team – in the top 20 or so teams in the world. But that’s it. Of course we have some very good players, but so do most teams. The difference being that most foreign players aren’t as incredibly overhyped as the England superstars. Is Wayne Rooney a good player? Yes, he is. But aside from a good showing at Euro 2004, he has done nothing for England on a big stage. Compare him to someone like Germany’s Miroslave Klose, who hardly gets a mention as a “world-class” player, but consistently scores hatfuls of goals in World Cups and European championships. The idiot pundits on the BBC were saying that only one or two of the German players would get into the England side. Yes. The German team who got to the final of the last European championship, the semi-final of the last World Cup and the final of the World Cup before it – they’re not as good as the plucky English players who failed to even qualify for the last European championship. It’s an astonishing level of delusion.

Part of the hysteria stems from the mistaken assumption that playing well in the Premier League (or the Spanish La Liga or Serie A) is a guarantee of international success. In commercial terms, the Premier League is a massive success, but everyone involved has started to believe their own hype. The media bias towards the Premier League  and the Champions League has become unstoppable. The commentators on many games seem to be unaware that football exists beyond Europe – that players from Chile, Algeria, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Paraguay can trap and control a football despite never having played in The Champions League. It was pitiful watching an Algerian team of anonymous journeymen with better technical skills than the English players. Just because Glen Johnson earns 50 grand a week, it doesn’t make him a world-class player.

I suppose that’s really what sickens me: the money and the hype. The Nike adverts, the Umbro adverts, the beer adverts, the patriotic crap in the tabloids. It’s the blind assumption that because we’ve thrown billions of pounds at a group of overhyped players, they are world-beaters. Being the best paid team in the world doesn’t make you the best team in the world. Don’t believe the hype.

18 thoughts on “English football: a realistic review

  1. I have no idea about football. Really, you captured my interest with your large breasts tweet. I would have RTed it, but as the world’s oldest Mommy blogger, I have an image to uphold. Then you babysat your niece/nephew, and I was a fan. molly

  2. Spot on. We’re just not good enough. Arguably we could have been in 90, but to claim we have a proud international heritage on the basis of a half-decade old triumph is beginning to make us look extremely foolish.

  3. It came to light on Monday that the England team had had their underpants stolen from their hotel. This in my opinion explains it perfectly.

    The England players not only had to cope with the mental strain of the opposing team actually being the ones wearing white, but at the same time they must have been in a lot of pain running around with their dangly bits flapping around for all to see.

    Maybe next time the players should keep their underpants on 24/7

  4. Neatly researched. Football is always the winner, which is unfortunate, as I tend to bet my money on one of the teams. And for that, I blame Budweiser and as you so aptly put it, the pocket stringers. That’s what they sell and thats what we buy. Then on the field, it’s just down to football. Kinda sacred no?!

  5. I have lived in Scotland for 20 years now and I’m seriously beginning to consider supporting Scotland instead of England. At least they generally don’t qualify so it’s all over before the hype can begin. And I’d get a lot less grief.

      1. I think you’ll find it’s only 8 times. And I suppose I was talking about the time I’ve lived here, during which Scotland have only qualified once, in 1998.

  6. The World Cup for England is about winning as much as Christmas is about Jesus being born. Yes, it’s a great way for sportswear manufacturers to capitalise on a a massively extended audience and yes the tabloids can shift a few more papers but perhaps it’s about more than that.

    Maybe it’s about women shouting EN-GER-LAND at the screen and learning the offside rule (again) in a sphere where they might normally feel excluded. Perhaps it’s a chance for us to forget about empire and slavery and to take some pride in our nation for a couple of weeks. More than all that it’s a chance for the country to be unified in one interest, regardless of whether they are seasoned football fans or not.

    It’s a chance to meet your mates in the pub and to share the hopes and persistently dashed dreams of the England squad, which so tragically mirror the lives of the everyday Englishman. It’s not about football results in the same way that the Premiere/Champions League is. It’s about your mum saying “that Rooney fella’s crap” and temporarily wiping all your football knowledge aside and agreeing with her.

    1. Oh, and: West Germany actually won it three times. 54, 74, 90. Just because England won 66 doesn’t mean counting starts from there…

  7. The astonishment of commentators who discovered Japan were quite a decent team who could pass the ball around was very peculiar. (I wrote about it here: http://middleclassfootballfan.blogspot.com/2010/06/big-in-japan.html)

    As it happens I am an Aston Villa fan, and your analogy is about right – but I’d also add that the FA Cup throws up far more surprise results than the World Cup, which gives you slightly more hope of winning it. Unlike the Euros, the World Cup hasn’t really had a surprise winner since 1954. The very top teams win it.

  8. I am in complete agreement. In fact, having read this blog I will perform household chores for you – for the period of 48 hours.

  9. Really well written. Thanks for that. it was like a long cold drink.

    We could indeed extend the hype to players too though. E.g. – How many times has “world class attacking left back, Ashley Cole” actually created a goal, or even put in a really good cross? How many times has world class midfield duo Gerard and Lampard actually looked in control of a game against a world class side for 10 mins? I actually think one player NOT overhyped in recent times was the much-castigated Beckham. His contribution in the last world cup was many times more than his nearest rival (probably Joe Cole), plus he was technically gifted. In recent times, Lamps and Gerard have bullied weak sides but always struggled to control and retain the ball.

    However, there is something in the English psyche that favours blood and sweat over skill and intelligence. There is an irrational, almost amusing arrogance to even consider the PL demonstrates international skills (How could it?): Meanwhile, lets remember (the very English) Aston Villa were knocked out in the UEFA cup by Sturm Graz last year!

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