England, best football nation? You’re having a laff

I'll always remember where I was when I heard that England had been seeded for the World Cup. There was dancing in the street, bonfires on the Heath. Then, when the draw was announced, and in effect England had got a bye, and therefore got straight to the final, the celebrations went mental.

On the front page of Saturday's Times, it said "England are winners". Well, that was it. No wonder the Post Office immediately made plans to issue commemorative stamps, just as it did in 1966, while the Royal Mint is doing a special World Cup gold coin with Sir David's head on. Yes, only a knighthood, that was a bit mean, when you think what Becks has done for England, football, humanity, haircuts, cutaway collars.

In the afternoon, I went to Arsenal to see them play Stoke. I had been looking forward to witnessing Gooners celebrating Arsène's 500th Premiership game as Arsenal's manager, but the more earth-shattering news of England's World Cup triumph had overtaken it. I nearly got run over by the FA's open-top bus filled with happy, laughing FA officials in their best blazers, throwing champagne and tenners to the cheering crowds. Ah, happy times. Then, on the Monday, I sobered up. How can we possibly win it, when we are so rubbish, the also-rans of world football?

Andy Gray and Sky tell us all the time that the Premiership is the best in the world, everyone admits it. So why can't we attract the best players? In the European Player of the Year awards, none of the top seven - Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta, Eto'o, Kaká, Ibrahimovic - is English, nor does any of them play in England.

What does that tell us? That our lads are not good enough and the top stars don't want to play here any more. Ah, but we are the richest league, no question. We are when it comes to paying fortunes to agents for doing bugger all, and charging fans to watch games, but not when it comes to buying players. We can afford only about half what Europe will pay. Ronaldo cost £80m, Ibrahimovic £60m and Kaká £56m. Our most expensive current player is Man City's Tevez at, supposedly, £45m. Shows what paupers we are.

Where we probably lead the world is in paying over the odds for journeymen players. Even the lumpest Prem player you haven't heard of who sits out each game on the bench is on £2m a year. In Europe, they pay mega for the best,
but washers for the rest.

As for our stadiums, come on now, magnificent or what? Don't tell me we don't lead the world there, which is why we should definitely get the 2018 World Cup.I've been looking at my World Cup charts, which already cover the walls in my room, and it's interesting to see that South Africa has got one stadium, Soccer City, which holds 94,000 - more than Wembley. Two hold 70,000 each, comparable to Old Trafford, while a fourth holds 62,000, just a bit more than the Emirates. Another six hold well over 40,000. We, meanwhile, are putting up titchy grounds, such as those of the MK Dons and Derby, as possible World Cup venues that hold about the same number as our living room.

Best, biggest football nation? You're having a laff. Jammiest. Oh, yes. Fabio has had all the luck, right from the qualifiers. Let's hope it continues.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.