INTERNATIONAL football is no longer so important for the development of the game. A controversial statement, but the reality is that contests between nations no longer provide us with the inspiration or the progressive thinking that has emerged from pitching the crème de la crème against each other. Consider that in the past, World Cups tried to show us the way forward, point us in the direction that the game was heading, and perhaps introduce us to new tactical thinking and fresh ideas around player utilisation. Or at least, that’s what history has tried to tell us. World Cups gave us the opportunity to see foreign players and teams and glimpses of different cultures.
Progress has removed the sense of wonder that we once might have derived from the gathering of the clans, 16 nations meeting in one country, posing with sombreros on their head, acting as quasi diplomats for their countries. World Cups were like grown-up Boy Scout jamborees – just look at any official FIFA film from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to get that feeling.
We no longer need the superficiality of a World Cup to introduce us to the Spanish, the Germans, the Brazilians or even “little men” from North Korea. We are no more fascinated by the way Brazilians play than we are about the latest iPhone. We know exactly how these countries play and we are familiar with every major football icon on the planet. The fascination has long gone, replaced by a more modern, calculating and choreographed approach to making international football competitions way beyond a month-long bean-feast of sporting elitism.
Football as nationalist expression
In the past, international football became an opportunity to wave the flag, to demonstrate allegiance to it, and to sing about superiority over your rival nation. Patriotism, essentially, manifested itself in sport and in deference to the monarchy or ruling body. In Britain, for example, you were spoon-fed the national anthem along with the Lord’s Prayer, regardless of your political or religious persuasion. It is now possible that football fans only ever sing the national anthem when they attended a sporting occasion. Even today, knuckle-headed supporters, with no particular affection for the Queen, will ask God to save her before an England match – perhaps even during the game. Anthems such as GSTQ and Land of Hope of Glory belong to the past, though, a past epitomised by Empire, conflict and myopic bigotry.
Nationalism and football are natural partners, and there is a core of support that will happily wear the cross of St. George, which has now replaced the Union Jack as flag of choice.
The fervour for patriotic support for England football is definitely waning, however. Notwithstanding the surprisingly healthy crowds for big internationals at Wembley – many corporate attendees, ring of apathy dwellers, day-trippers and tourists (in the loosest sense) – there is perhaps less appetite for the national team than there’s been for many years. This is primarily because of the poor quality of the England squad, a symptom of the prostitution of the English game, and the neglect of player development and club/country engagement, as well as changing demographics.
What is an Englishman today? Is it an outdated idea? Academics will tell you that there’s no such thing as an indigenous Briton, that the United Kingdom’s people are descended from many races. It is absolutely logical to assume that immigrants will adopt their new homes as their own and become as patriotic as those that were born and raised in Britain. Today, you find all races and creeds at a football match, something that did not exist in the 1970s and 1980s when attending football was a white, working class pursuit. You might think that racism, among a number of maladies, is a thing of the past, but as we saw in Paris a couple of years back, it still prevails in football.
Football grounds were one of the places that you could, basically, get away with being anti-social and racist. It may be less vocal than it was, and no longer part of mass chanting as it was in the 1980s, but it is still evident at major grounds. I stood behind the goal at Tottenham two seasons ago and witnessed two black youngsters being shown the exit by bull-necked remnants from the 1970s. “We don’t want your kind here.” The stewards ignored this little scene and were indeed laughing as the two black supporters, looking more than a little fearful, sought refuge in another part of the ground.
Generally, football grounds are better places to visit today, but just how many people are committed to the England team? Has the club versus country argument that was once hotly debated in the media concerning player availability now extended to supporters?
The insatiable whore
It is not unreasonable to suggest that if a football fan had one choice, Arsenal or England, then the national team would come second best. Over the past 20 years, we have seen the gradual emergence of multi-national teams that pay little heed to the development of English footballers. On the opening weekend of 2016-17, the 20 Premier League clubs started with just 77 English players out of 220 – 35%. What sort of chance does that give the England manager, however good he might be? Clubs have become corporate machines that have exploited the freedom of labour contract to the extreme – their youth teams even include foreign or repatriated players. It is ironic that as Britain starts to leave the European Union, with the free movement issues very much on the table during the referendum, that the nation’s football clubs are the one of the most visible examples of aggressive hiring from outside the UK.
English football is awash with cash – just consider the Deloitte Money League if you need any evidence of that. Eight of the top 20 clubs are from England, with a further eight in the 30. Yet despite the enormous wealth, in terms of playing resources England is edging close to bankruptcy.
Time and again, the FA appears to be in denial when it comes to solving the problem. Each new hope for the future, such as Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere, is weighed down by unrealistic expectations. The Tottenham lads will shortly experience that same level of inflated hope.
A country with so much wealth in its domestic game has no excuse for being unable to field a competitive national team. Like so many elements of business life in Britain, short-termism rules the roost. The damage being done to football in England by its major clubs will take many years to remedy.
The question is, can England FC compete against club football? It is unlikely given the marketing machines behind the very top clubs are so dynamic, not just in Britain but in continental Europe. International football is not just going head-to-head with clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, but also with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus.
That’s not to say the marketing people at the FA are not doing their bit, but the problem with watching England is that the evening is so wrapped up with “Wembley”. Audience participation games, mostly quite patronising, along with the “Mexican wavers” (if the football is captivating, you don’t need such gimmicks), make the experience akin to “going to the ball game”.
To a certain degree, the FA make it easy for football fans to wrap themselves in the all-consuming world of club football. If international football is, in fact, dying, the authorities are as much to blame as anyone.
The rise of the small band of “super clubs” and the UEFA Champions League, which has all but become a “World Cup” in its own right, have compromised both the World Cup and the various regional competitions. But both FIFA and UEFA have, perhaps unwittingly, played their part in destroying the cachet of the World Cup.
Jules Rimet’s brainwave has disappointed for some time (although to be fair to 2014, it was an improvement) and FIFA’s answer is to make it even bigger and more unwieldy. The proposal to extend the competition to 40 or 48 will be its death knell. Likewise, the recent expansion of the European Championship, which will not stop at 24 teams, is changing what was an extremely enjoyable and manageable 16-team format into a heavily diluted tournament in terms of quality. More teams may mean more TV money and more merchandising opportunities, but from a quality control angle, it makes the competition far too long.
The finals are only part of the problem. Qualifying groups are now packed with poor quality nations playing sterile football. Jonathan Wilson, writing in World Soccer, commented that international football is falling further and further behind the club game and describes the qualifying phase as a “dull slog”. He’s not wrong and as Game of the People pointed out this year, England’s problem is they don’t face competitive football until they reach the finals of the European Championship and World Cup when they frequently disappoint. On the way, they’ve usually steam-rollered a batch of Baltics and eastern Europeans. Officials pointing to 10 straight wins are either misguided or devious at marketing.
The answer is not to make the competitions larger and longer, but to rationalise, but UEFA and FIFA are never going to make that decision, unless it is forced upon them.
It’s the event, stupid
One of the reasons why the World Cup will just keep growing is that marketing and advertising have got hold of it. If you attend any of the major competitions, you will see how branding and mass marketing is now controlling events. To compound this feeling that you’re in some sort of staged play, encapsulated by the fan parks and the hullabaloo in and around the stadium (which do have their positives), the spectators buy into this circus. But the European Championship was a case in point – the event management was superb, but the football was dire, at best very average.
This all means that the “event” has taken over from the actual reason you’re there – the football, which as it stands has become the most disappointing aspect of the day. People who went to France, in spite of Russia and England doing their best to be spoilers, largely came back having enjoyed the “crack”, but can they honestly say they gained anything from the football itself?
People like to say they were “there”, regardless of the sport. Making sure you’re present is almost more important than the game. We have a problem if we rely on the buzz to keep us interested rather than being entertained by sport. Maybe the Mexican wave has its place, after all.
The writing’s on the wall
England are not alone by any means. Some segments of the media tried to build-up the recent England v Scotland game, but the fire has been out for decades. The “Auld enemy” are, very sadly, no more than a third-rate international team these days – in fact, anyone from the 1960s and 1970s looking down on this clash, which believe it or not was a World Cup qualifier, will have be deeply upset at the decline of two of football’s historic movers and shakers.
With the European Championship for 2020 about to be spread across the continent, we may have seen the last of the old-style hosted carnival for Europe. There’s the not insignificant consideration of the disintegrating economy of Europe and the inability of some countries to host a major competition when they have mass youth unemployment, huge budget deficits, a dysfunctional currency and border issues to contend with. And with Brexit possibly “breaking the seal”, we could see a complete fragmentation in the European Union. The World Cup now faces six years of turmoil as Russia and Qatar take on the host’s role in 2018 and 2022 respectively. Who assumes it in 2026 is yet to be decided, but if FIFA is still operational, they will surely opt for a safe bet – USA will be the money-spinner they would crave. By then, what will international football’s audience look like?