Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Humiliation and Potential Re-Birth of English Football

The late, great, Bobby Moore would have turned in his grave last Sunday. As captain of the 1966 World Cup winning English team, Bobby lead 10 other passionate, committed, talented and tireless players, to a famous victory at Wembley on 30th July, 1966, worthy 4-2 winners over (West) Germany.

Their successors in the England team, 44 years later, were very pale, feint shadows of their illustrious predecessors. As an Englishman, especially one living and working overseas, last night I was embarrassed to be English.

Of course I’m refering to the humiliation of the English, four goals to one, by a young, hugely talented, motivated and passionate German side, skilfully lead by Phillip Lahm. They are coached by the precocious Joachim Löw, who could well have been a worthy successor to Sepp Herberger (World Cup winners 1954), Helmut Schön (1974) and Franz Beckenbauer (1990). This German side didn't win in 2010, but they will definitely be among the favourites for Brazil 2014.
A German friend of mine posted something on his Facebook status straight after the game. It read: “Goodbye England. I think they are afraid of the future German football”.

I told him, no, I’m not afraid, but I am definitely in admiration, a little in awe, and believe it or not, perhaps ready to say “thanks”!

Yes, that is not a misprint, I really do mean thanks, and for a number of reasons.

Goal-line Technology
Let’s look at them, straight away getting rid of the obvious point about goal-line technology.

Of the 22 players on the field, those in the team dugouts, the 40,000 in the Free State Stadium in Bloomfontein, and the millions watching around the world on TV, how come it was only Uruguay referee Jorge Larrionda and his assistant, Mauricio Espinosa, who failed to see Frank Lampard’s terrific shot go some half a metre over the goal-line, after striking the bar. That would have made it 2-2 at half time, and could have lead to a closer game. It might, at least, have prevented England’s humiliation, and my embarrassment at being English!

This was, without doubt, the best clarion call there has been to date for the urgent introduction of goal-line technology. Sepp Blatter (Head of FIFA), this is not rocket science we’re calling for, it’s pretty simple stuff. We’re seeing it now at just about every professional tennis match, where players can challenge what they feel to be a wrong line call. It’s now used in first class and test cricket to help umpires with certain difficult calls.

We’re seeing it at top rugby union matches, and it’s here where the comparison is most apposite. If he’s in any doubt about whether or not a try has been scored, the referee can call for a fourth official to examine a play back of the touch-down and give his verdict.

It’s common sense, and in today’s football, where huge sums of money may be involved, and reputations can be made or lost on such decisions, it is sheer folly not to bring in the technology. Worse, it smacks of rank amateurism. Like it or not this is now a business, and one where the balance sheet is larger than that of many small to medium sized countries!

Even referees’ representatives in UK have said they will welcome it. So come on FIFA, UEFA etc, bring in the use of goal-line technology at the latest by the start of Euro 2012, preferably well before.  You've at last agreed to re-open the whole subject, so stop the talking and act.

Unrestricted numbers of foreign players
Now let’s look at the ills affecting the game in England (and also in Italy and France, Spain to a lesser extent, but, unsurprisingly, not Germany). Let’s start with the unrestricted use of foreign players in the domestic leagues, and the effect this has on youth development.

There have been calls for restrictions from every quarter for some years, but these calls have mostly fallen on deaf ears, although FIFA tried hard in 2008 to introduce a so-called “6+5 rule”. This would have mandated that teams would have to field six players from the country of their club, but would allow the other five to be foreigners. Unfortunately they got little support from clubs and national associations, both of whom (understandably) have commercial interests more at heart than national pride.

Commerical interests at the EPL clubs mandates that as a business, they have to make a profit, and the largest slices of that profit come from TV rights, ticket sales and merchandise sales. With regard to merchandise sales, this is particularly true of the four biggest clubs, especially from sales here in Asia, the world’s largest market for EPL merchandise.

If these clubs no longer have unrestricted access to the world’s best known players, the fear is, of course, that their sales will plummet. Clearly a replica of the shirt worn by Portuguese star, Nani, at Manchester United, is going to be of infinitely more commercial, world-wide appeal right now to that of, say Tom Cleverley, a terrific 20 year old England U21 player, and excellent senior level prospect, but only now breaking into the MU first team squad. Yes, Cleverley may become, in time, as famous and popular as Nani, but the profit demands are now, not in five or ten year’s time.

However, will the English Premier League be able to resist demands from FIFA, pressure from the Football Association, pressure from the media (not to be under-estimated in the UK), and pressure from the most influential quarter – the fans? These fans are now demanding that England stop being the great pretenders and actually return to centre of the world stage, where it’s felt they rightly belong.

I hope not, but I am not optimistic, especially because of the preponderance of foreign managers in the English Premier League.

The damaging effect of foreign coaches/managers in the English Premier League
It is perhaps of no surprise that 15 of the 18 German Bundesliga managers are German. At the end of last season’s English Premier League, just 6 of the 20 clubs had an English manager.

These managers (including one or two of the Scots) almost exclusively and consistently look overseas to strengthen their squads, virtually ignoring the huge amount of young English talent that exists in the divisions of the Football League – The Championship, League One and League Two.

These divisions, especially the lower two, together with the first class Blue Square League (formerly known as the Non-League Conference), ought to be fantastic nurseries for the English Premier League sides, producing home grown talent for the future. Are they? Sorry, it seems no! The likes of Arsene Wenger, Carlo Ancelotti, Robert Mancini etc, have their sights firmly focused outside the UK, and that is a disgrace. Sadly so does Alex Ferguson, but he is a Scot *smile*.

Let’s look at the Academy setup among Premiership clubs. How well do they do on their report cards for the development of young English/British talent? Let’s take Arsenal’s, one of the first to be awarded academy status, 11 years ago. Insofar as developing English talent is concerned, I’ll give them a ‘D’. The only name mentioned on the website as having graduated from the Academy and gone on to get full honours with the England senior side is Ashley Cole. In 11 years, only one? The Arsenal academy is rich in diversity, with many countries from around the world represented. At a guess, I’d say that less than 50% are English. If England truly does aspire to re-capture the World Cup, and we certainly should, then the FA has to incentivise the clubs to make the academies solely for the development of British talent. I’d wager there is private money around who would be sponsors to such an approach.

Why is it not a problem in Germany and Spain?
The percentage of foreign players (vs citizens) last season in Germany’s Bundesliga was 46% and in Spain’s La Liga was 31%. In England at the beginning of last season, the average number of foreign players in EPL clubs was almost 54%. Arsenal was worst at a staggering 85% (closely followed by Liverpool at 83%) with Wolverhampton Wanderers the best at 29%.

The huge difference in the EFFECT of these foreign born players in Germany and Spain, compared to England, revolves around investment in the long term development of young talent.

Put briefly, Germany has the world’s largest and arguably most prestigious sports university, of which the Bundesliga and the National Association both make full use. As far as Spain is concerned, I read this recently on the BBC website:

"Spain has 750 fully qualified Grade A UEFA trained coaches compared to under 150 in England. But that’s not even the clincher. The most striking point is this, 150 Grade coaches in England all coach at professional or semi professional level to fully grown men. 640 of the Grade A coaches in Spain teach in SCHOOLS. They coach 5 year olds and up how to play the game. One touch football, pass and move, to actually think about the game when playing. Have a football brain and use it. 15 years ago the Spanish F.A and government changed the whole youth set up from 5 years of age up. 15 years later and they have a group of maybe 7 or 8 world class players in their national team!”

Fantastic, well done Germany and Spain! Your investment in young talent, a decade or more ago, is now being seen in South Africa.

A Hope for the Future – The English National Football Centre
Need I say more. Actually, yes, and it concerns the proposed English National Football Centre, to be known as St George’s Park.

This will be a truly world class facility, with the potential to produce world class footballers, sports medicine and sports science professionals. It’s modelled on the very successful Italian centre, Caverciano and the French centre at Clairefontaine. It is expected to be completed in 2012, although that may be too optimistic having only just received planning permission from the local authority.

But, it is a start! I just hope that it is not a long term, false dawn. It will serve as the centre for all the England squads, from U16 to the senior squad, and that is very positive. The more the youngsters get to mix with their peers and their seniors the better it must be for creating a solid team environment. That, in my view is essential, and I’ll say a little more on that below.

It is not, however, an academy, and that is a great mistake, in my view. Contrary to the opinion of NFC Chairman, David Sheepshanks, who says that the academies are the job of the Premier and Championship League clubs, I say to him that the interests of the EPL Club academies and those of England are chalk and cheese. To begin with, the academies are not just for English or even British youngsters, they come from all over the world, literally.

Leadership and Teamworking at the senior England squad level
You cannot create a real team unless the team leader and the team members have a common ground. The common ground cannot just be your industry or company, it needs to be something far stronger and far more enduring, something cultural, something historical, something that immediately binds you.

They need to speak the same language. Yes, I mean that literally as well as figuratively, but not because Capello or even Ericcson before him were not easy to understand. No, when you have your native language as a common ground you also have culture and history as a far broader and deeper bond between you.

The one thing so clearly lacking in the England side that exited World Cup 2010, was motivation. Self motivation is critical, but a really good leader is invariably superb at harnessing individuals’ self-motivation, and funnelling it down to the whole team. Not one player looked truly motivated, engaged or focused on the job in hand. Why? To me it was because they had no leader. Capello was their manager, and as anyone whose attended a leadership development course will tell you, leadership and management are two very different animals. It’s even worse when the manager is a strong disciplinarian.

We need (as England Manager/Coach) someone who has the unusual combination of footballing skills, leadership and motivation skills, coaching and communication skills, international experience with England, and essentially, someone who has the respect of English players (and the serious English media – forget the tabloids).

Capello is a manager, not a leader. Why? A leader is a visionary and can paint pictures of the future, most often drawn from the past and uses his/her common cultural and historical ground to make the anecdotes as real and as relevant as they can possibly be. As an Italian, Capello cannot do that. It’s not his fault, just a simple fact of birth.

But more than that, a real leader is never an iron-fisted disciplinarian. A real leader uses charisma not a horse-whip. Capello's cold attitude and distant relationship with England's players was easier for them to take in short bursts, as during the qualifiers. But over the long haul in South Africa, the almost monk-like existence forced upon the team, was simply unacceptable, and that played a huge part in destroying morale and motivation. As one commentator pointed out, the England team were living in luxurious surroundings in the Royal Bafokeng Sports Complex, but the Capello regime was austere.

Any good English leader, in Capello’s position, in the dressing room last Sunday, would possibly have had a video of the 1966 World Cup final playing, showing our four goals, the English celebrations and German disappointment, time and time again. He’d have told them how people back home were so excited at the prospects of another victory over the old enemy, about the thousands of St George’s Cross flags, English flags, were flying all over the country and how another of our old enemies, Argentina, likely awaited us next, in the quarter finals. He would have exulted them to go out onto that Cape Town pitch and kick some butt. .

I wonder, could Fabio Capello sing “Jerusalem”, the unofficial English National Anthem? I’d make sure our English manager could, and the team.

We needed a leader on the field too. Steven Gerrard wore the Captain’s armband, but did he lead? No, he didn’t and while we can speculate as to those reasons, let’s not bother. Water under the bridge and all that.

The future
There is only one way to go and that is forward. We must go forward having learned from some awful mistakes on the pitch and off. Personally, I hope that Capello does resign, or is told by the FA that his future is elsewhere. I hope that England do find someone as a new coach/leader/manager who has the combination of footballing skills, leadership skills, coaching skills, international experience with England, and essentially, someone who has the respect of English players (and the serious English media).

I believe he exists, and was actually in South Africa with the team as a mentor. David Beckham. Yes, in such a role he would be very young at 35, but only four years younger than Jurgen Klinsmann when he managed Germany from 2004 to 2008. Appoint him now, and by Brazil 2014, he’ll be exactly the same age.

Beckham has shown in the past that he has leadership and motivational skills in spades, and is probably one of the most passionate players we have seen in an England shirt. I’m certain he’d be no different leading as the England manager. But, sadly, for now he has ruled this out. He hopes to play in the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 World Cup.  I hope the FA can persuade him to re-consider.

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