I was listening to a discussion recently about whether Gareth Bale’s football career would not be complete as he is unlikely to appear in a World Cup Finals. Comparisons were made with George Best who seemed to achieve everything in the game except appear in a World Cup. But football is different these days, especially in Europe. Around the world, international football matters, but in Europe the Champions League has taken more attention. Nowhere is this more evident than in England.
The England nation team is followed by supporters of clubs outside the Premier League, as many fans of Premier League clubs will point to wanting to see their club win something more than they want their country to. For me, I was brought up with international football being the pinnacle, even though I’ve seen my club win the European Cup 5 times, there’s still something dramatic about nation against nation. But why should we bother with international football?
If UEFA doesn’t take it seriously they are in danger of losing a qualifying place to Africa or Asia. This would make it harder for many nations to qualify for tournaments and make it really tough for their Federations to sell the concept of international football. But there are still countries in Europe for whom international football is important and England is often a nation they long to beat. Look around this current qualifying campaign and you see the progress made by countries such as Armenia, Cyprus and Bosnia. But the English indifference to their national side is synonymous with the inertia towards the starving of English talent at the domestic club level.
England is known around the world as ‘the Mother Country’. Its football federation is the only one which doesn’t use its location in the title. It’s always the French FA or the Brazilian FA or the Scottish FA but there is only one FA. England invented the game and took it to the world. If you just give up on international football you are giving up on all that tradition and legacy. It consigns all the famous events of England’s history to the dustbin. Many players’ finest moments have come in an England shirt and these players have become world renowned as a result. If England had many exciting players playing for different clubs then maybe people would get excited in the prospect of them playing together. But casting off international football as not worth bothering with, is unlikely to encourage the next generation.
Other countries believe in international football and you are seeing a surge of countries previously considered minnows before. There are even players who could qualify to play for England who decide to play for another country they also qualify for. Is that because there is more pride in playing for your country elsewhere?
International football is the purest form of competition. If you haven’t got a left-footed player to play at left-back then you have to select someone who can do the job. You cannot just spend a load of money and get someone in. It’s the best that you’ve got against the best that we’ve got. Money does not influence what you are watching, apart from the money each country is willing to invest in its football. Brazil has been one of the best footballing nations for many years, yet it’s only recently the country can be considered to have any sort of wealth to speak of. The problem with a money-driven system is that success is only available to a few. If the only thing you have to attract players to your country is wages, then your football has no soul. Those players only remain as long as the wages can be sustained. You need local players. It’s the most effective way of building wealth at a club as you pay little to obtain a home-grown player yet can sell them on for millions. Home-grown players understand the environment, the local community and the style of football played in that country. Showcasing your own talent demonstrates the health and vibrancy of your industry. In England we have many clubs owned by foreigners and staffed by foreigners and we just look on and marvel at the product we’ve created. Basically, we’re paying a lot of hard earned money to watch a load of outsiders do something we’re not very good at. Unless we’re prepared to address that then we’ll never be any good at it. Is that what people really want?
There are many countries who have admired English football for years. During the ‘70’s and early 80’s Scandinavian countries were considered minnows, but with more and more English football shown there, many youngsters were motivated to take up football and that’s resulted in the talent you so often find in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. African and Asian nations are rising in stature and they have grown up with the Premier League and are therefore creating their own talent. So where is the English talent?
The traditional pool of talent footballers come from is the less wealthy/educated part of society, but if they don’t see any route into football then what is there for them? You only have to look at Scottish society to find the answer – drugs.
Success at international level can be shared by more supporters than club football can. These days it is common for fans to watch the game in pubs and clubs around the country and share the highs and lows, whereas club matches will often be watched by people not interested in the fortunes of either side on show. You only have to look at the success of sports such as cricket and cycling to see what international success does for activity at home. After England won the Rugby World Cup there was a surge of interest in the game, whereas club success in the Champions League doesn’t get as many people out kicking a ball around.
Club football, when compared to international, mirrors much of society today in that if you haven’t got a decent midfield player just go out and buy one. Whereas for players to represent their country it takes time to develop and nurture talent. All these rich owners who have come into English football haven’t necessarily improved English football as such, they’ve just made it easier for their clubs to buy players from abroad. Manchester City are reported to have invested into the local community in a bid to produce home-grown talent, but then if you’re a young English player one of the two clubs you’re likely to avoid, if you want your career to develop, is City.
Considering the aspect of Academies, many of the top clubs in England have them but they are stocked with young foreign talent. The future of English football is not bright. You’d only have to watch the youth tournaments this summer to discover that. There are few players knocking on the door, and more and more supporters just dismissing it is making it worse. It’s all very well for unfit unhealthy supporters in the stands and on sofas not wanting players to have an international career but, as mentioned earlier, if you don’t develop your domestic game and home-grown talent, what happens to the people who would ordinarily have gone into football? What will fathers now tell their sons when they watch football and the son says “Dad, I’d like to be as good as Aguero, or Coutinho or Hazard”
“Sorry son, you were born in the wrong country. You’ve got no chance in England, why not try another sport”
We have a fantastic successful product in the Premier League but we’re developing into a country which cannot produce any of its own talent. Coming from a country with a rich heritage of international football it’s a sad state of affairs. It’s too late to try and find scapegoats and people to pin the blame on, as all that does is delay finding and implementing a solution, we need to change things and it will have to start at grass roots level. There should be a pride in where you’re from, plenty of other nations have it but why aren’t we learning from them?
Without a good national side any future tournament we might host will just be an excuse to see the players our clubs weren’t able to buy. English league football has some of the finest talent around, but not the best, they go elsewhere and then come to England once their career heads towards a close. This has been the case ever since the Premier League was launched. Players such as Bergkamp, Zola, Ravanelli all came to England after making it elsewhere but now you’re starting to see some players using England as a way of showcasing their talent before a big move to another country.
Germany went through a similar problem around the turn of the century. The German national teams for Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002 were some of the poorest I have ever witnessed from that country, despite reaching the Final in 2002. But gradually they turned things around, and have some of the most talented players around. But is there the will and desire to change things in England? Perhaps there are too many in the FA who are comfortable with their jobs and reluctant to change? We have a football industry where few English players are rated very highly and the same can be said for English coaches.
If you want to understand the thrill and buzz of a successful nation team just think back to the Olympics in London and the feeling which went around the country with all that success. That is what it could be like with a successful England national football team. How successful would the Olympics have been with no chance of British medals? It would still have been well supported but you’re just watching the best from everywhere else. Many sports have reported an upsurge in interest since the Olympics, simply as a result of the coverage and success of home-grown athletes. Cycling has been around the years and there have been 100 Tour de France, but it’s taken the success of people like Chris Hoy, Jason Queally and Bradley Wiggins to get people onto a bike. If you see people from your country doing it, you’re more likely to want to give it a go. These people are like you, come from the same area as you, and they could even be you, so you’re more compelled to give it a go and experience the thrill yourself.
So who is rubbishing international football? Is it just the supporters of clubs who compete in Champions League? As only 8 English clubs have ever competed in that tournament since it was changed from the European Cup then there are many clubs’ supporters who are missing out. If it is only supporters of Premier League clubs who don’t want international football then you’re still forgetting about 72 other league clubs. But then that is what has happened since the Premier League came into being. There is a lot of money in English football, yet there are more and more clubs going to the wall. Just ask the supporters of clubs like Coventry and Luton who both competed in the First Division the year before the Premier League was launched, whether they feel the money in football has benefited their club.
Of course it doesn’t help when club managers don’t support international football either. It has never ceased to amaze me that some managers will continually buy talent from Africa and yet seemed surprised when these players want to play for their countries during the African Cup of Nations.
If we give up on international football then the inevitable consequence is that the richest European clubs will break away from their respective federations and form a European League. “So what?”, you might say. Well, this is likely to lead to a league formed on a similar basis to NFL where it’s a closed shop without promotion/relegation and only contested between 10-12 of the biggest clubs. If the club you support happens to be in that bracket then congratulations, but for the rest of the football watching world they can only look on and dream. That means even fewer opportunities for English footballers and the danger of reduced gates at clubs not in this elite league. One of the attractions for foreign players and owners in English football is the big crowds. Once they go, will the money go with them as players may not want to play in half-filled grounds and owners may not want to invest in clubs nobody wants to watch. The other side-effect of all this is that for a club like Manchester United you may be watching top European sides every week, yet the costs of travelling to away games will have gone up. This could also push ticket prices up for people clambering to get a view for home games too.
Where there is a move to “buy British” in so many other industries it seems odd this hasn’t filtered through to football. Is it because footballers seem less engaging than at any time in the game’s history? The gap between supporter and player is as large as it’s ever been and perhaps that’s one of the problems.
I’ve heard it said recently that “international football is boring anyway”, but that masks the fact that 75% of Champions League matches are boring. It’s rarely worth watching matches until you reach the knockout stage. So is that the problem with international football that many of the qualifying games are almost meaningless. There are clearly too many countries in UEFA and matches against Moldova, San Marino or Faroe Islands just don’t stimulate the public. If the groups only consisted of 5 teams then at least 6 out of your 8 matches are going to be critically important.
One factor where England seems to be different to many other nations is that the whole team is picked from home-based players. There are hardly any English players abroad. Why is that? Is it because their wages are too high? Is it because they are just not rated by other countries? I believe it’s time we re-evaluated what we English football actually is at present, because to me it just seems to be a rich man’s playground and is doing little good for the future of English players.
It should remain the greatest honour to be chosen to represent your country. To be considered one of the best players in the country in your position, to pull on the national shirt worn with such pride and honour by many of the biggest names in football. We have to support international football because if we don’t then the richest clubs will just take over and their only concern is for their own bank balance, not for the development of the game at home.