The tragedy of English football

When Thomas Müller scored Germany’s last goal in a 4-1 loss to England in the 2010 World Cup, the BBC commentator was a broken man. How many German players, Guy Mowbray asked sadly, would make the England squad? A compelling response quickly followed from thousands of viewers. At least ten, and it could be a full house if captain and right-back Philipp Lahm imagines a shot down the left.

The regular beatings suffered by the men’s national team clearly counted for nothing in the fantasy world inhabited by England supporters. Scotland’s ‘Wembley Wizards’ taught the first lesson in 1928, winning 5-1. The debacle of the United States (1-0) in the 1950 World Cup followed. Three years later, the Magnificent Magyars, led by Ferenc Puskás, would score six goals in London, and seven more a year later in Budapest . The Germans in 1972 and the Dutch in 1988 revealed the chasm of skill and tactical sophistication.

Then, six years ago, came that 2-1 defeat to Iceland, the most brutal humiliation of all. What a dismal record it is, and England still expect it. No, requirements. In the mythical kingdom of “Ing-er-land”, English exceptionalism remains commonplace. We gave the game to the world. They owe us.

[See also: Football’s data delusion]

Is English football not even ‘English’ anymore? The Premier League, created 30 years ago for commercial reasons, is an international television entertainment that takes place (for now) in this country.

Select and enter your email address

morning call



A quick and essential guide to national and world politics from the New Statesman’s political team.

The crash



A weekly newsletter helping you put the pieces of the global economic downturn together.

World review



The New Statesman’s world affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday.

The New Statesman newspaper



The best of New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Green times



The New Statesman’s weekly environmental email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and natural crises – in your inbox every Thursday.

Culture Edit



Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent out every Friday.

Weekly Highlights



A weekly digest of some of the best stories featured in the latest issue of The New Statesman, sent out each Saturday.

Ideas and letters



A newsletter featuring the best writings from the ideas and archives section of the NS, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history – sent every Wednesday.

Events and offers



Sign up to receive information about NS events, subscription offers and product updates.






  • administration office
  • arts and culture
  • Crew member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Customer / Customer Service
  • Communication
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Management and maintenance of facilities / grounds
  • Financial management
  • Health – Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, training and organizational development
  • Information and communication technologies
  • Information services, statistics, records, archives
  • Infrastructure Management – Transportation, Utilities
  • Lawyers and practitioners
  • Librarians and library management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OHS, Risk Management
  • Operations management
  • Planning, policy, strategy
  • Print, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, asset and fleet management
  • Public relations and media
  • Purchasing and Supply
  • Quality management
  • Scientific and technical research and development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Delivery service
  • Sports and leisures
  • Travel, Lodging, Tourism
  • Wellness, Community / Social Services




Ian Chappell, Australia’s great cricket captain, said that having given cricket to the world, the English had done nothing to develop the game. It’s a levy that could be more usefully applied to winter sports . The English have codified the laws of football but the national team has little to show for a century of hiccups, except a midsummer success of Swinging London.

Content from our partners

A new day, a new threat vector

UK cities must adapt to climate change

How industry is key to net zero strategies

At the heart of England’s failure is a hint of unusual talent. Peter Osgood, a center forward with rare gifts, received four selections. Alan Hudson, a fine passer of the ball, won two, one more than Charlie George. It was the dark days of the 70s, when England failed to qualify for two World Cups, and wondered why. The English, said Miljan Miljanić, the widely traveled Serbian coach, made the “best middle footballers” in the world, admired for their spirit. England has never produced a Pelé, a Di Stéfano, a Cruyff or a Zidane.

“Glen [Hoddle] must learn that disappointment is part of football,” said Ron Greenwood, a particularly weak England manager, when he let go of the Tottenham midfielder after a superb start in 1979. Ah, wrote Brian Glanville, the king of football writers, but what a disappointment? This question gets to the heart of the matter, because the answer is clear: England, every time.

“We are absolutely overwhelmed when it comes to our training ideas,” coach Jimmy Hogan wrote in 1931, “and the sooner we realize this, the better.” Three decades later, in soccer man, Arthur Hopcraft castigated a British arrogance “reflected vividly and calamitously in football”. Witnesses are not lacking in Paul Hayward for his history of the national team.

Fortunately, there are other tales, which the author unfolds with clarity and impartiality. Hayward, who is no parochial tub beater, finds much to admire in top players, from Nat Lofthouse to Harry Kane, while keeping an eye on the evidence of history. He knows we love football in this country, in an increasingly superficial and tribal way. He also knows that we have never been as good as we imagine.

Apart from Wembley in 1966, was there a golden day? There was. On June 7, 1970, England lost by one goal to Brazil. Two weeks later, Brazil were crowned world champions, a team without parallel, but that day in Leon, England were tied. They were a manly side – possibly England’s best XI ever to field.

Another World Cup is just around the corner and the TV studio cheerleaders (“We’re going to beat them!”) have started repeating their platitudes in fractured English. Feathers in our brains, lead in our boots and millionaires occupying every village in Cheshire. Will we ever learn?

English football: the biography 1872-2022
By Paul Hayward
Simon & Schuster, 613 pages, £25

Buying a book can earn NS a commission from Bookshop.org, which supports independent bookstores

[See also: Does the FA Cup need saving?]

Comments are closed.