WANT TO know why England will fail in World Cup 2018? Why poor old Sam Allardyce is on to a loser, no matter how earnest and tenacious he might be? Put simply and candidly, there is a lack of raw material. Surely we all know that? On the 50th anniversary of English football’s greatest achievement, it is worth reflecting on why we have sunk so low and what may be preventing a revival.
England will undoubtedly qualify with relative ease for Russia 2018 (that’s if the narcotics unit don’t pull the plug, of course). After all, they have the following group to win through: Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Lithuania and Malta.
Even in English international football’s parlous state, Allardyce should be able to galvanise his team to get through that lot. If he doesn’t, then we are in an even worse state than we think.
But it’s a fact that qualifying tournaments rarely test a top level nation, and I use that term very loosely, because in terms of national team performance, England’s Euro 2016 may have given the nation the footballing equivalent of a financial ratings agency downgrade.
The script is going to be so familiar. England usually go into a qualifying phase with expectations dampened by a summer of disappointment. Preliminary campaigns follows an early exit in either the World Cup or European Championship and the period between July and September is usually reserved for chin-stroking, navel-gazing and empty promises of a new era for the game based on “building from grass roots”.
Football authorities talk about the impressive set-up at St. George’s Park and how many young children, women and people with disability are playing the game – in other words, they make an attempt at reassuring everyone that the game has never been healthier. It’s all nonsense because our leading clubs appear to do little to help nurture the next generation of England players. It’s a results game as they say and most managers and chairmen only look for immediacy.
England usually stroll through qualification and this fuels unrealistic hopes – I was at a non-league game where Greg Dyke was boasting of “10 straight wins”, which sounded great until you looked at the fixture list. There’s a very good reason why our national team falters when the competition gets serious. Simply, they are not used to playing elite level football against international opposition. Take a look at the England squad that flew out to France. Twenty-three players, but just seven from clubs playing Champions League football, and not one of them earning their corn overseas. Of those seven, only five players – Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney – appeared in the Champions League – a total of 42 appearances. There’s two important influences here: firstly, our top sides have too many overseas players; and secondly, none of them venture beyond these shores to gain a global view on life. With wages so high in English football, it is not difficult to see why, but if they are not getting UCL experience from domestic football, they are not it anywhere.
Compare these figures to the other “big five” leagues and it is clear why our most “talented” players struggle when it comes to playing in international competitions. France, the hosts, had 15 players playing in the Champions League and they came from a broad range of clubs. Italy also had 15, with six from Juventus and three from Lazio and Roma. Spain had the highest number with 17, nine of which came from the big three clubs, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. Germany came in at 16, five of which played at Bayern. Even Portugal, the surprise winners, had far in excess of England’s paltry Champions League representation.
This demonstrates a number of things, but mostly that the UEFA Champions League is now the testing ground for international players. Friendly internationals are largely a waste of time – expensive tickets to watch training ground matches with multiple substitutions. Can you seriously remember a friendly you’ve remembered beyond the journey home from Wembley plc?
Whether you like the Champions League or not, you cannot deny that in its latter stages, it represents the very best of European – indeed, world – football. English absence from this platform means that our players do not benefit from involvement at the game’s pinnacle. We do not know how our players are really shaping up as they spend close to two years playing flat-track bullies and underperforming in European club competition. However, the 2016-17 season should help remedy that, and despite the gloom, there is a glimmer of optimism. The core of the current England squad is Tottenham Hotspur and they are in the UEFA Champions League. That should separate the men from the boys.