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Bill On... England at Major Tournaments

And so there we have it. Monday evening’s 2-1 loss to Iceland marked the saddest chapter yet in the soap opera that is the England national football team at major tournaments. On some level it was inevitable, such has been the decline of a proud footballing nation since the 1966 World Cup victory. Since that day in Wembley 50 years ago, England have won 6 knock out matches at major tournaments against Paraguay (1986 World Cup), Belgium (1990 World Cup), Cameroon (1990 World Cup), Spain (1996 Euros), Denmark (2002 World Cup) and Ecuador (2006 World Cup). Hardly the CV of a pretender to a World or European title.

Fans, media and the football establishment alike can’t reconcile the money in the Premier League with the performance of the national side. And, in my view, this is why a solution hasn’t been reached in the last 30 years. It’s an easy mistake to make, the conflation of the cost of player (or their weekly wage packet) with the value of a player to a team’s objectives. Put more simply, the same beer might cost you £5 in London and £1 in Prague. The value derived is the same, the cost wildly different, driven solely by the market it’s being sold in and with scant regard for the virtues of the product itself. The simple fact is that the Premier League is not the richest League in the world because of English players. It’s richer because of the influence of foreign players and coaches, billionaire (and mainly foreign) owners and benefactors, it’s well-oiled global marketing machine and its more action packed play when compared with other top leagues. English players benefit from this financially, but the national side does not because the quality of home grown talent has not kept pace with the football factories of South America and the big European powers. Illustrated by the ever shrinking percentage of English qualified players appearing in the league.

On ITVs post-match analysis of the Iceland game, Peter Crouch asserted, perhaps simply, that the pressure had gotten to the players. This was roundly rebuked by Alan Shearer on BBC’s Match of the Day, who himself was cut off before delving too deeply into why he thought the Premier League was at the heart of the issues being experienced at international level. But why is the percentage of English qualified players starting in the premier league a big concern when there are leagues all over the continent in which they are free to market their wares? At least until the UKs exit from the EU is formalised.

An anomaly in the last 60 years of English international football is Owen Hargreaves, and specifically his performance in England’s World Cup 2006 quarter final loss to Portugal. He was man of the match that day and was head and shoulders the most influential player on the pitch. Even deep into extra time, he belied his usual deep lying position to continue to drive forward showing the intestinal fortitude and guile to pursue a winner before the penalty shootout. The performance stands out to this day, and in my footballing experience, is one of the greatest by a player on a losing side in a World Cup. When the penalties did arrive, Hargreaves was the only successful England player from the spot. Perhaps it stands out as a performance by an England player for the simple reason that there are few such performances with which to compare. As small a sample size as it is, let’s see what we can learn from it.

Born in Canada, Hargreaves footballing apprenticeship was served in Germany, spending 7 years with Bayern Munich, winning four Bundesliga titles and a Champions League. His modus operandi forged at the biggest club in the country whose football traditions the English most envy and fear. Hargreaves was not the first, British players have done it before, illustrated by the reverence with which Chris Waddle is held in Marseille to this day, the transformation of David Platt after his years in Italy and, though part of an unfancied Welsh side, Gareth Bale’s time in Spain has turned him into a winning machine. He never gives a hint, not even a flicker, that deep down he thinks his team won’t win.

The issue is the insular culture of English football and the insular nature of English footballers. Financial gain is seemingly pursued at the expense of the completion of a footballing education. Players need to broaden their horizons, experience other footballing environments and spend time with players and coaches who consistently win on the international stage. Only by acknowledging this deficit, and working to rectify it, can we expect to see the soap opera ending differently in future tournaments.