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.

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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.

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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

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

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