As predictable as a thunderstorm after a hot spell, last week’s ending of the World Cup marked the commencement of two great British summer traditions: the inquisition into what’s wrong with our coaching and player development, and the feverish promotion of the coming all-new, improved, ever more spectacular season of televised Premier League football.
Perhaps the most telling contribution to these twin rituals came from someone who has a foot in both camps. In a tweet to his 2.4 million followers, Gary Neville, the Sky pundit and coach for England, observed: “People who write ‘England should follow the German route’ are either oblivious to the obstacle or believe in magic wands!”
He then went on to explain that England needed to “find our way of doing it because the system we have doesn’t allow” what he referred to as Germany’s holistic approach.
But what is the system England have and what would constitute “our way”? How, for example, might it be characterised in contrast to the coordinated German method of youth development? Presumably if England are to stay true to our national customs and habits, our way would involve a laissez-faire means of doing things, the sort of light-touch regulation that has proved so rewarding – for some – in the financial markets.
It would have to be short-term in outlook, as the English seem to possess neither the patience nor the commitment to follow any given strategy for longer than a qualification campaign. And it ought to be vague, unbinding and needlessly complicated, so all interested parties can interpret it as they please and then agree that, all things considered, it would be best to jettison the bold and radical innovations as unworkable.
And, of course, if the authorities are serious about upholding “our way”, then they must do nothing that might conceivably make English football clubs appear less attractive to wealthy foreign individuals or inhibit the wholesale global plunder of foreign youth players or limit the power of elite clubs to do what they want to serve their own interests.
Finally, “our way” must surely involve a dysfunctional marriage of amateur administrators and cut-throat business people, which seeks to maximise the incompetence of one and the venality of the other. Because, in spite of many decades of debates, promises and announcements, England don’t have anything that deserves to be called a “system” and there isn’t a way but instead a means of muddling through.
Like it or not, so much of English sport remains locked in a permanent state of hand-wringing and blame-shifting. Would anyone like to try to explain what the English tennis system amounts to or what system has been in place in English rugby union since the glory days of 2003? Even the English cricket system leaves insiders bemused – let alone disinterested onlookers.
No doubt the familiar jumble of promises, announcements, restructurings and initiatives could be assembled in each case but the only coherent theme that consistently emerges is of underachievement relative to wealth and population size. As a nation England seems to excel in soul-searching, whereas the Germans prefer to put their energy into solution-finding. The result is that in international football – the gold standard of team sport – the Germans have won four World Cups, have been runners-up four times and have reached the last four a total of 12 times since 1954. Compare that with England’s solitary World Cup (on home soil) and a single other semi-final.
And to think that we see the Germans as England’s greatest football rivals. It’s as if we imagine an Austin Allegro can compete with a BMW. But why can’t England follow the German model? What is the big obstacle to which Neville referred? Cynics might say it is his other employer, Sky Sports, with its relentless hyping of the Premier League to the exclusion and detriment of all other areas of the game, including the national side and set-up.
Whether or not the Premier League is the “greatest league in the world”, it certainly doesn’t attract the greatest players. Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Robben, Ribéry and co tend to prefer Spain, Germany and France. For although it features the highest percentage of foreigners of any major league, the Premier League has consistently failed to lure or hold on to the biggest stars. So it might be said that the development of homegrown youth has been sacrificed for the enrichment of second-rank imports.
That, however, would be a cop-out. First, because England were not noticeably more successful before the arrival of Sky, and second because if the billions of pounds Sky and now BT pour into football are squandered by the clubs and the authorities it’s not the fault of the TV channels.
Ultimately the problems that afflict English football and tennis, and to a lesser extent English rugby and cricket, come down to a lack of belief. The Germans truly believe that their football should be successful and put in place a clear, comprehensive system that provides the optimum conditions in which to realise that success.
The English would like to be successful. We dream about it, hope for it, yearn for it, but when it comes down to it we don’t really believe that it’s possible. And therefore we never get round to doing what’s necessary.
For all Greg Dyke’s best intentions, if England ever again manage to win the World Cup, it will most likely be in spite of the system, not as a product of it.