Mickey Blue Eyes
"Yes, all times are bad but some times are worse than others. This is one for our country."
GORE VIDAL, Point to Point Navigation, chapter 21, page 159 (Little, Brown 2006).
World Cup 2014 has completed the group stage. The sixteen qualifiers for the knock out stage are: From Group A - Brazil and Mexico; B - Holland and Chile; C - Colombia and Greece; D - Costa Rica and Uruguay; E - France and Switzerland; F - Argentina and Nigeria; G - Germany and the USA; H - Belgium and Algeria. Congratulations to them all. This time around the major shocks were elimination of Italy, Portugal, Russia and Spain.
And so, to the surprise of no informed footy fan, England bowed out after just two matches, deservedly beaten 2-1 by both Italy (population about 61.5 millions) and Uruguay (population about 3.3 millions), and then only able to eke out a 0-0 draw against Costa Rica (population just over 4 millions). But there can be no complaint because we were never really in the mix. In fact the worst loomed before the second match when slipper skipper Steve Gerrard said, "There are no excuses", thus trying to bully karma - an ominous last resort for the fearful. Nor should anybody think it easy to "solve" the problem. There are too many angles. Willing a solution is one thing, achieving it quite another.
So I speculate: What now for our national team?
To get this in a demographic context, England's estimated population is 56 millions, 25th largest in the world. Yet much smaller populations of Argentina, Spain and Holland regularly produce relatively more success in the World Cup. Counter to that, much larger populations in Russia, Mexico, USA and Japan regularly fail in the tournament in roughly the same way as England. Obviously crude numbers and pleading mere history are not the answers. Something more is required.
There will be chatter about coaching methods. But such talk is for ale house sophists, dozy journalists/pundits and tenth rate tin drummers in "public relations". As with players, coaching talent in individuals is either there or it is not. There will always be good and bad teachers. A great manager or coach like Vicente Del Bosque will always bring more out of players because he is more often right than wrong within prevailing limits. Successful playing systems flow from a manager/coach who knows how best to use what he has, or, at club level, can afford through transfers. The playing system does not come first....it comes second, and is therefore as flexible as available playing talents. Also, in the current era successful physical fitness regimes are similar everywhere. In other words, the main controlling factor is innate character and talent; fortunately these cannot (yet) be manufactured. All sensible lovers of the game know two of its greatest attractions are its unpredictability and spontaneity. Long may it be so.
I think we can dismiss without qualification a reported comment of the Football Association chairman Greg Dyke that if "Prince" Harry had attended the first two matches England might have been encouraged to do better. As a Lower Street End socialist republican I have to report I found myself on my back on the floor kicking my heels in the air at that one. Words are well nigh superfluous. But what it usefully illustrates is how footy insanity reaches even the centres of footy power. If the FA chairman thinks that way gawd knows what the rest of the London-based "royalist" board are like.
The glaring near-comical simple fact is we do not have enough players of international standard. There is no individual to blame, though doubtless mainstream media have as usual done their worst to find scapegoats. I cannot know since I pay little attention to a football information system that employs, for two instances, Robby Savage and Alan Green; their unerring imbecility is proof incarnate that Sarah Palin, Kelvin Mackenzie, Rupert Murdoch, Tony Blair and Boris Johnson - to name just a few - are not the only Neanderthal dead ends. The equally simple fact is media are more interested in false "appeal" and "controversy" than in common sense.
Still, expected or not, our exit stings like a bitch: we went out in the group stage for the first time since 1958. But back then it was understandable because we lost in the previous February Munich Disaster the heart of a wonderful young national side; Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne, Mark Jones, Eddie Coleman, David Pegg and Tommy Taylor were among twenty-three killed in the tragedy. Personal losses were incalculable, and on a much lower scale there were no adequate alternative players. Fast forward; in 2014 we had few international class players in the first place. Those we did have simply failed, all of them, while our youngsters barely had time to dry behind their ears and get their jock straps on. Ergo, team imbalance was so predictable it was......well, melancholic at best. I could hardly bother to shout at the flat screen and throw Frascati superiore over the furniture. Losing The Ashes to the Aussies was bad enough, but this was the World Cup, not an antipodean rain-making ceremony for paranoid inmates.
Therefore, I make no apology for returning to a theme I have banged on about for years: an adult review of what the game is for. There is no need for artificial hysteria. The main problem roots, tiresome as it may seem, are in employment law and commercial law. In my opinion the English game may (repeat may) stand a better chance of improvement if these are changed. Remember the profound effect of the Bosman ruling, which changed root and branch the way football finances are calculated, and, eventually, what happened on the pitch.
At the core of our predicament is the total number of foreign players in the Premier League, where recent statistics claim there are 177 foreign players and 75 English players. If these figures are true there is an obvious conclusion to draw, that percentage chances of success for "home-grown" players are much less than in previous years. If the figures stay static the balance could only be overturned by a phenomenal throw of the genetic dice, otherwise known as "a golden generation". Which means such players could appear next year or a century from now. The object surely should be if possible to reduce the odds against. Still, this guarantees nothing because it is but one factor in the equation. Chance will always play a part, as will quality versus quantity and how young players develop alongside established stars, especially gifted non-English players.
The usual counter-argument is, "If he's good enough he'll get in the team. Nationality doesn't matter". But this is one-dimensional straight-line thinking. It implies only immediate success matters. Yet this runs against the history of professional sports because players and supporters everywhere turn up even when there are no trophies in the cabinet. Non-professional sports also flourish. Successful and adverse playing surprises still exist and can manifest at any time. The trick surely is to create conditions in which indigenous young players in all countries get better opportunities to develop; if we do not do that....why bother with national team football at all? If the nation-state finally vanishes what future is there for nationalism of any kind?
What better example of the loyalty aspect could there be than our own beloved Everton, where we have not won an honour since 1995? If this continues, next season will conclude our longest period ever without silverware. But like many fans of other clubs our fans have stayed and even increased the attendance figures to well beyond those for our last great team in the late 1980s. Everton season ticket sales for 2014-2015 are the highest ever. This, in an era where absurd inflationary money has reduced the chances of success to near-monopoly by a few super-rich clubs. Nevertheless, as always, sports supporters loyalty is prized across the globe, not least as a commercial consideration; professional sports could not have begun or exist without it. Furthermore, all fans react emotionally to a local hero or a youngster who succeeds via the youth system. Money meets chauvinist tribalism: which is more important?
The trick is in how to fuse all of this with foreign talent without detracting from national team performance. The extreme example of adverse affect is Spain; for decades their World Cup performances were dogged by the debilitating affect of phony naturalisation and foreign player dominance. It was only when Franco exited the scene that matters improved. The result was the great Spanish team of recent years. Yet Barcelona and Real Madrid still rely heavily on foreign players despite near-fanatical Catalan and Spanish nationalism.
So the one-dimensional counter-argument falls......but, given human nature, not entirely. Aberrations aside, most fans are in fact patient if fractious in the long term. This is crucial if the game is to be reconstructed because it implies foreign players are not an absolute necessity even if they are better. Plainly, the issue is more complicated and is heavily related to perceived club community roots. As a corollary, however deluded (professionalism burst that bubble over a century ago), there is much popular derision reserved for "glory hunter" fans who attach themselves to clubs with foreign billionaire owners and a full trophy cabinet, though there is certainly a measure of envy in such derision. This illustrates the main problem faced by those, like me, who advocate radical reconstruction: just how tolerant would fans be if the English game was suddenly deprived of undeniably highly-skilled foreign players? Then again, what if the entire English game was sold lock, stock and barrel to foreign ownership in the way much industry and commerce has been peddled?
Earlier I mentioned law. Understandably the subject causes eyes to glaze over and lips to refrigerate. Still, the plain fact is it is law which controls professional football players. In our case it is European employment law which prevails and encourages freedom of movement between member nations of the European Union. Therefore, if there is a consensual wish to limit the number of foreign players it will be necessary to change relevant laws. And not just in Europe. For it to function sensibly it would be necessary to reach global agreement because players now come to England from all parts of the world. And quota restrictions strike at the root of the right to work where you wish: after all, players are contracted employees too. Once you enter this argument you are in the notoriously difficult legal terrain of international law and its precedents. But how to establish agreement?
In a democracy worthwhile change is achieved through consensus, which almost always is an untidy and scatty, argumentative process. In this case consensus means reaching broad agreement that football (actually, all sport) is exceptional as a healthy community activity that overrides most other considerations. That legitimises quotas, the number of foreign players per club. Keep it simple, limit national team selection to players born within national boundaries, naturalised citizens not excepted nor the "relevance" of grandparents birthplace. Thus there is better opportunity for indigenous youngsters, and employment movement is maintained, though sensibly limited. The game in each country could then develop in accordance with its national culture and attitudes, but it would still be open to different influences and talents. However, the law change must be virtually fireproof or it would be challenged and fall in court.
On no account should such a change be confused with anti-immigrant xenophobia (though there will certainly be those who try). We are no more xenophobic than any other country but as island people we are probably more vulnerable to it. I repeat, it should be applied with an even hand across all nations on the basis of healthy promotion of sport amongst the young. That means international success would be much more satisfying, if and when it comes. Ultimately it is a question of priorities. What matters most......fairer opportunities and encouragement for youngsters, or playing success of super-rich clubs?
But of course it does not stop there: Now enter commercial law, regulation and "competition", all of which have become neocon dogmas shoved down your throat by monopoly-owned media; in fact such dogmas are nothing but shibboleths designed to protect crony capitalism, not democracy. Nevertheless, they have to be tackled if the principle of peaceful-society-governed-by-law is to be maintained; the alternative scarcely bears thinking about. The issue then becomes one of deciding which laws are bad, which good and which are simply outdated by enlightenment. Since undeniably we live in a capitalist state the laws are established accordingly in capitalist interests. That is, rigged. Naturally such a state will resist any movement which challenges its monopoly. And contemporary professional football is of major commercial interest, hugely popular across the world, and worth many billions. There is much at stake, not least the exemplar affect in society. It requires little imagination to see where it might lead if something as popular as football successfully eliminated crony capitalism.
Hence deployment of the "competition argument" and all the propagandist nonsense about legal "red tape". In the case of professional football this means introduction of a maximum number of competing players. If foreign players are better this logically means a reduction in the number of indigenous players. Competition, you are told, is healthy. The reality of course is different, since all competition ultimately leads to monopoly as competitors are eliminated to maximise profits (for football read: trophies), which means a constant round of redundancies and a permanent pool of unemployment. You are also told legal "red tape" is "unhealthy" because it restricts competition - once "red tape" is erased everything will be all right, the "free market" will provide. But that is bollocks; you might as well believe in human immortality or transubstantiation. In fact regulation through law is the only practical protection Joe Citizen has after near-demise of unions and other working class institutions. In this era, cut away relevant laws and you have little or no defence. So regulation is not only inevitable it is essential. Examples: We have the freedom to shout "Fire!" in an open field, but not in a crowded theatre, and Football Laws of the Game prevent the sport reverting to its original hacking format.
In fact the so-called market provides only what monopolies decide on and at what cost. In our present system the only notion of capitalist monopolies is profit, which in turn means power over all aspects of your life. Those who bleat about "interference" of law in business are always anxious for law to interfere on their behalf. Oh irony. Genuine or healthy need is of no concern. That is the crude Malthusian and quasi-Darwinist basis of the current era. Like it or not, it applies to football as much as it applies to your employment.
Those are the main arguments. How they are resolved will govern the future of the English national team.
Meanwhile, overall, the tournament group stage has been a vibrant success. If this continues into the knock out stage we may yet get a vintage World Cup to rival 1970. The only thing missing thus far is the individual genius and tremendous team play of Pelè's Brazil, though inimitable Lionel Messi has come close. But there are compensations: the sheer enjoyment and exhilaration of fans from all parts of the world, the colours, the face paint, the harmless nonsense, above all the free flowing football, tremendous goals and skill on view. Footy-wise, it has been the usual mix of naive enthusiasm and sophistication. I have missed only a few games but have seen no outright stinkers. The only blot on the landscape has been the crackpot biting episode by Señor Goofy of analfield, plainly a man in need of serious counselling.
On a personal note I was delighted for my American family and friends as the US progressed. If that country ever decides to take the sport seriously the rest of us might as well get ready to watch their behinds disappear into long term football glory. Fortunately for us their establishment are more interested in promoting Mickey Mouse, cowboys, rounders and Wall Street "culture". Meanwhile the Yanks ran rings around a formidable Ghana, took Portugal to near-defeat and for a time scared the even more formidable Germans into a bowl of jellied knödel. I was pleased too for a terrific South Korean team and was instantly on the phone to console former Korean colleagues when they lost by an unlucky 'keeper spill to Belgium.
Now England are out......Come on, World.