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.