Who is responsible for England’s utter failure at the World Cup this year? For all the disappointment with Wayne Rooney for missing a couple of chances we like to think he’d have buried a couple of years ago, or the mystification with Steven Gerrard’s uncanny ability to pick out Luis Suarez with a defence-splitting pass, an ability that seems to function unhindered by the two players being on opposing sides, the simple answer is that the blame lies with the Football Association.
The Football Association know this and, as you would expect, they have a scapegoat already lined up: the foreign players. You have to give Greg Dyke and his cohorts credit: they lined this scapegoat up ahead of time, with proposals aimed at rectifying what they see as the problem of foreign player proliferation.
To see the FA playing the petty xenophobia card in these day and age, while anti-immigrant rhetoric is blasted out of the mainstream media on a daily basis, is hardly surprising. The government and many of the opposition parties to boot have been laying the groundwork of mistrust and suspicion for the last few years. The FA can push the idea that English football is some sort of delicate native species, likely to be destroyed by interbreeding with horrible alien football styles. In a country where an education minister can talk with a straight face about a need to promote ‘British Values’ and not be laughed at and fired, the idea that ‘English football’ is a thing, a thing that must be nurtured and protected, can look almost normal.
The problem with the FA narrative about the influx of horrible foreigners diluting our precious talent pool is that it is completely and obviously false. It was not so long ago that the English talent pool was teeming with the likes of Paul Scholes, a player who is regarded by the best midfielders of this generation as the best midfielder of the last generation; with great centre backs, with Beckham, Lampard and Gerrard in their pomp, with the likes of Rooney and Owen up front and in form. The obnoxiously named Golden Generation of England players were legitimately brilliant. England never won a trophy with that team, but in that same period Greece won the European cup, a cup England would fail to qualify for in 2008.
We have had great players and we have them now, and even if we didn’t there is no excuse. We can say that the current crop of English players is not up to the standards of earlier sides but that is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the dire state of the England performances. Take the USA for example, there are very, very few players in that side that would get into an England team right now. But there is no doubt which team is playing the better football. The USA was cast into a group of death and they came within 30 seconds of qualification with a game in hand. By opting for a balanced team, with a plan to win matches, even if that meant leaving established players behind, the USA has punched above its weight.
We know the England players are good enough because if they were not good enough they’d be replaced with foreigners at club level. The unfeasibly high standards in the league have meant opportunities for young English players are harder to come by, but it also means that the young players who do fight through to their first teams, the likes of Shaw, Barkley, Wellbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling and Wilshere, are extraordinarily good. The English team can call upon young players in nearly every position who would stroll into the vast majority of other national teams, and those other national teams, at the World Cup finals at least, would do better with them than England.
The FA is to blame for this. We can say that Gerrard shouldn’t be captain and we can say that Hodgson shouldn’t be manager, but what point would changing the lower tiers of the organisation serve without a change at the top? Why sack Hodgson when the men who thought he was a good choice in the first place remain in charge to make yet another bad appointment? All the FA has done in recent years is to follow the path of least resistance.
As the desperation to dodge responsibility for their own failures leads the FA to consider measures to undermine the English league itself, we face a very real threat of losing the one thing that England does do brilliantly: its league football. Decades more stultifying lumpball from England on the world stage would be bad enough, but to cripple the league itself would be absolutely unforgivable. And for what? Even if there was some magical way that we could sacrifice our league for a good national side to do such a thing would be absurd.
England has a great football league and it produces great players. Our FA can afford to hire great coaches and managers. There is no excuse for the continual failure of the FA to get results.