Euro 2016: England’s Reduced Status
At half-time during the match between Italy and Germany last night, the BBC cut back to its studio in Paris. Sitting opposite host Gary Lineker were Gianluca Vialli and Thierry Henry, speaking elegantly and honestly about the strengths and shortcomings of the the two teams in their respective second languages. Alongside them was Alan Shearer, who recently made a pitch for the freshly-vacated England manager’s job. He sounded like a jacket potato suddenly gifted the power of speech in comparison with the other two. It’s unfair, of course, to single out Alan Shearer for criticism when there’s so much to fault about the entire set up of professional football in this country. But Shearer is a symptom of a football culture that has been broken for many, many years, and which is unlikely to be fixed at any point in the foreseeable future.
It just so happens that the latest in a long and inglorious list of English failures coincided with something far greater in significance. The jury remains out on that matter, this failure of the England football team felt deeper and more terminal than usual, with the rest of the world watching, pointing and laughing even more than usual at a country that seems to have suffered a collective nervous breakdown over the last couple of weeks or so. For many years, there has been a sense that England have been winging it a little, that we’ve been papering over the cracks at home and putting on a successful front elsewhere while something rotten festers at home. The analogies have been as plentiful as they have been obvious, and perhaps the only difference between our political situation and our sporting situation at the moment is that there is no-one making promises of jam tomorrow for English football any more. Or rather, if they are, then nobody’s listening. We’ve had our fingers burned by those lies one too many times.
In the immediate aftermath of Monday night’s defeat at the hands of Iceland, the entirely predictable chase for scapegoats was on and, with Roy Hodgson having fallen on his sword while the corpse that represented England’s bid to win the 2016 European Championships was still warm, there was little point tailing the former manager of the team with jabbing fingers and spittle-inflected invective. And so it was that the players have found themselves fully in the firing line in a familiar yet still strangely surprising search for some form of revenge. It’s true enough to say that England’s players didn’t perform as expected, never mind hoped, in France this summer. But the extent to which some sections of the press have gone after some players – in particular Raheem Sterling – has still been troubling. If we can agree – and it seems more than likely to be the case – that England players give every impression of freezing through fear every time they go out to play for their country, then what, exactly, is a tabloid-led pogrom in the immediate aftermath of a match that they’ve just lost meant to achieve?
Of course, the point is that the journalists who engage in this sort of thing aren’t interested in football in the slightest. They’re interested in creating moral outrage – which they’re very good at – and selling newspapers – which they’re less good at, these days. And footballers make for easy targets. They’re uniformly wealthy these days, so no matter what they achieve it can never be enough for some. They’re predominantly from working class backgrounds, so their taste can be sneered at. They may not be the most articulate tools in the box. All of this apparently makes them fair game for the extremely English character trait of looking down the lower orders, and that’s before we get onto the sticky subject of the players’ racial make-up and how that might have influenced, whether consciously or not, the choice of player that they went after more than any other.
The arrival of the inner sanctum of the Football Association into the immediate after-all it all doesn’t add to any sense that England are going to improve at any point in the near future, either. It should be perfectly obvious that the biggest problem that the England national football teams are infrastructural, and the FA is a not insignificant part of this. England’s problems lay deeply embedded in people’s brains, affecting our decision-making, from the relatively tiny number of UEFA A Licenced coaches to the tiny number of players who dare to venture abroad, from the media to the managers, from the pitiful provision of facilities to children to the top of the Premier League. Nobody is innocent in all of this, and few people even entirely sure what the repair job required might be, never mind whether the will to see it through exists to any significant extent. There are plenty who would claim to know, of course, but as with all tricky problems, we should beware those with sweeping, broad-brush answers. Suffice to say, playing Premier League academy in the Football League Trophy from next season on is not going to make any difference.
We could start with the one thing that supporters can do. Tone down the abuse. There are reasonable grounds to believe that, on the night, the players were frozen with fear. Perhaps a turning down of the outrage volume control might actually help the players to do their job. Modern top class football is a highly technical, sophisticated game, and carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders probably doesn’t help them to perform to their most efficient. No-one is suggesting that we should all link arms and sing “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing”. Just that perhaps we could tone down the shrill for a while. It’s detracting enough when you’re just watching the game. Christ knows what it must be like when you’re playing it and the subject of it.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that this is just the future of the England football team. They have no preordained right to sit at international football’s top table. Perhaps we’ve already decided that international football doesn’t matter any more and that the international team isn’t worth it any more. We’ll get our biennial of dumb rage every couple of years, and will do us. Perhaps our dumb rage will end up having to shift to failing to qualify in time, and in any case, we’ve got the Premier League, haven’t we? The Best League In The World™. Perhaps it will just end up feeling like a bit too much like hard work. And perhaps England’s future will come to level off as being something of a historical curiosity, a team that somehow once won the World Cup, many years ago. The rest of the world will get on with it, and we’ll simply adjust to this new reality, in time.
These are decisions that we make, and that are made on our behalf. In the short-term, who will be the next England manager? Somebody with an ego bordering on sociopathy or a lunatic, probably. The England manager’s job is surely football’s ultimate poisoned chalice. Each victory is merely delaying the inevitable clusterfuck by one match, and tournaments, that might only be three or four days. This pressure isn’t merely on your shoulders. It weighs heavily on the players, who sometimes seem to be frozen into being pale facsimiles of their club selves. It’s supported by an executive team that is scarcely fit for purpose, and has a domestic league that is effectively hostile to it being successful. Such is the nature of capitalism. And you are the personification of this, no matter how impossible and intractable it all is. It’s amazing, what some people will put themselves through for a few quid.
Maybe, though, this time it may just sink into a few minds. Maybe the FA will bring the cost of coaching right down and have a major recruitment drive. Perhaps pressures will be put upon Premier League clubs to move their operations towards helping the national team rather than hindering it. Perhaps scouts will start taking into account something other than the size of a thirteen year old when looking at young players. Perhaps we’ll be more modest, and shed our skin to reveal something better. After all, it is ultimately our choice. The biggest question is: how do you ever begin to untangle something so deep-seated?
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