The England football team in Brazil. Photo: Getty
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Who's to blame for England's failure at the World Cup? There's only one answer

... and it's not foreign players in the Premier League.

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.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.