England celebrate after winning the 2014 UEFA Under 17 European Championships (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Bongarts/Getty Images)
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England’s schoolboy success only adds to sense of confusion

Were FA’s ‘old school’ methods the right approach all along?

With a swing of Jonjoe Kenny’s right foot, English football’s ills were cured.

The England Under-17 side, in capturing their second European title in five seasons, were able to showcase the merits of a grassroots system that had shunned modern thinking and ploughed straight on with traditional means.     

Greg Dyke’s controversial plan to introduce a ‘B team’ competition into the English football league structure disappeared to the cupboard containing the Premier League’s ‘39th game’ proposal and Richard Scudamore’s custom-made golf clubs.

The parents screaming from the touchline on local playing fields every week were vindicated. The ham-fisted youth coaches who habitually used the stronger, taller kids at the expense of their smaller, snappier peers, were victorious. The dinosaurs that had ensured the acquiring of a UEFA ‘A’ coaching qualification cost five times as much in the UK as in Spain, saw their pricing plan justified.

It was enough to make you wonder what the fuss had been all about.

At the same moment as England’s youngsters were completing their penalty shootout triumph, esteemed Spanish journalist Guillem Balague was hosting an evening with colleagues from Sky’s football magazine show Revista de la Liga. The panel dissected the merits of the English and Spanish games – two pyramids often heralded as being amongst the most exciting and dynamic in the world.

I had expected Balague and guests to have a set of ready-made steps for English football to take to ensure their successes in the international arena matched those of their Iberian cousins.

Instead, the author of A Season on the Brink was forced to defend the controversial Spanish television rights arrangement – a package notorious for benefiting the nation’s biggest clubs – Real Madrid and Barcelona – apparently reinforcing the superiority of the two giants at the expense of a competitive top flight. Hadn’t this been something cited as a reason for England’s international poor fortune?  

Instead, the panel were far keener to talk about the concept of Spanish ‘B’ teams and how a similar infrastructure would work in England. To reinforce his point, Balague invited onstage a former Watford scholar - Austin Eaton – forced to ply his trade in Chile and Spain due to his lack of opportunity on these shores.

Whether or not Eaton is able to turn his career around working at second division side Cordoba is as much of a mystery as how many of England’s under- 17 squad – by now celebrating on the giant screen behind Balague’s head- will go on to represent the full national side. What is clear, however, is that the concept of ‘wasted’ youth is a powerful weapon. 

In that respect, the decision to jettison Ashley Cole from England’s World Cup squad for this summer’s tournament in Brazil is illuminating. Cole, a veteran of 107 caps for his country, seven FA Cup winner’s medals and three Premier League titles must have been incredulous as he replaced his handset after Roy Hodgson’s call to effectively signal an end to the Englishman’s 13 year international odyssey.

Cole, despite a reduced role at club side Chelsea this season, could still argue to be amongst the finest full backs in Europe, yet there were few condemning Hodgson for picking 18-year-old Luke Shaw – an international novice - in his stead.

It is representative of an English desire to roll different dice, even if better dice are already in hand.

English football, much like many of the nation’s other sporting pursuits, is a box of contradictions. Dyke’s England Commission report published last month seems unsure if we are too hard or too soft on our young players.

For all the trendy criticisms of the footballing infrastructure in this country, England have, three times in the last five major tournaments, been a set of penalty kicks away from a semi-final berth. Had those shootouts ended in triumph rather than heartbreak, England’s competition resume would be one dwarfed only by Spain and Germany across the same period.  

Conversely, during the same era, and with a largely identical set of players, there have been extraordinary failures too.  In the 2007-2008 Champions League season, the Premier League laid claim to three of the four semi-finalists, yet the national side were unable to qualify for that summer’s European Championships. The division in the successes and failures of the period is stark.

In the aftermath of Germany’s surprise 2010 World Cup showing, former coach Jürgen Klinsmann talked about how, after Germany’s footballing nadir in 2004, he had sat down with future manager Joachim Löw to discuss the restructuring of the nation’s football setup. 2010’s semi-final run was, he claimed, a vindication of that policy.

It was the sort of sound bite that drove the English press into raptures. The idea of being able to combine the most precious of sporting commodities – youth - and the chance to rail against an out of touch football administration was an opportunity too good to miss.

The nature of the sport dictates that judgements are made of infrastructure and managerial decisions on the basis of one kick of a ball, stroke of fortune or moment of stupidity.

The reality of so many British successes in a catalogue of sports across the last decade shows that management flabbiness is not endemic.

And so, if England’s senior side do follow their schoolboy counterparts in celebrating success this summer, expect the national game to be trumpeted as a hybrid of ruthless commercial endeavour and competitive self-interest.

If not, however, Messrs Balague and Dyke might be knocking on the door with a few questions.




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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood