The post mortem has begun, as the English public want reasons for the most embarassing defeat in the history of English football. But tune into ITV, and the host, Mark Pougatch asks pundit Peter Crouch to list the reasons for England’s failure. That is much like someone asking Yoko Ono, “What is wrong with this Beatles song?”.
England’s ignominy in this tournament and others in the recent past is due to three reasons. The first is the greatest sin of them all, hubris. England is an arrogant nation – note that I’m not singling out the football team, but the entire country. This is what happens when one reads from an early age in all the history textbooks about Rule Brittania, and how England is the most important nation on the planet. In the game between England and Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup, left back Alvaro Pereira went down after a hefty challenge from Raheem Sterling. Much beloved British commentator Ian Darke suggested that he was time wasting – after all, Uruguay were in the lead. What had actually transpired, was that Pereira was knocked unconscious on the pitch – Darke was quickly made to apologize live on air, and this triggered the “What to do in case of a concussion” debate after the game finished. But this typifies the attitude of the English – somehow, their rightful place on the top of the football pyramid is being challenged by tiny Uruguay and their injury feigning cheats. Another example is in the game between Chelsea and Manchester United earlier this year at Stamford Bridge, when Kurt Zouma suffered a horror injury – he ruptured his ACL, and his blood-curdling screams were broadcast on live TV for everyone to hear. Meanwhile the commentator Martin Tyler quipped “One man’s injury is another man’s opportunity” and how this was a chance for replacement Gary Cahill to cement his place in the England team for the Euros. And we’re talking about the commentators here, never-mind the players.
Take a closer look at Iceland’s second goal, scored by Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Let us analyse this from the perspective of Joe Hart, who doesn’t save it because he isn’t expecting a shot – the center backs (Cahill and Smalling) didn’t put in a block or tackle for the same reason. Their inner monologues would have been going “Sigthor-who? Nobody’s heard of him, so there’s no way he can score…..Woooops”. Imagine for a moment, that the attacking player was Messi or Ronaldo. We’d have challenges flying in left, right and center, and defenders putting their bodies on the line, because they expect a player of that calibre to hurt them. England did not respect an Iceland team that beat the Netherlands home and away, and bested Turkey 3-0 during qualifying, and they paid the price for this.
Sloth – the second sin: There are two key ingredients to success in any sphere of life – natural ability and adequate training. The latter is much more important than the former. While England are far superior to every Icelandic player barring Gylfi Sigurdsson in the former, they simply had the wrong men for the job in the latter. England had one entire week to prepare for this game – a luxury given the number of games played at this year’s tournament, compared to Iceland who had two fewer days. Yet, their inability to deal with the long throw-in in the case of Iceland’s first goal exposes a lack of preparation, and is an indictment on the England coaching staff. The huge drop in quality in the second half is equally damning – it shows us that the right words were not said in the dressing room at half time. It reminds me of an overconfident student giving a mathematics examination – in which he cannot solve the first two problems because he didn’t bother studying. Subsequently, his confidence sinks – his head starts spinning, and the remaining problems, which are actually eminently solvable, now appear impossible.
Gary Neville, the assistant manager, is a television pundit who came a’cropper at Valencia. With two back-to-back failures in three months, his coaching career has the markings of an aeroplane that stuttered out of the hangar, only to explode on the runway. Once again, it is hubris that Neville waltzed into the Valencia job without learning the Spanish language. In contrast, Guardiola spent a year studying German (for four hours a day) before he took the job at Bayern, while Mourinho studied Italian before he took the job at Inter. We are talking about two treble-winning managers who had achieved everything in the game, but still decided that it would be wise to prepare for the job before turning up to the training ground.
Roy Hodgson is not a bad manager, but is one who is not with the times. He’s an anachronism that lowers expectations in the era of cut-throat competition : All of his successes have come with teams that did not expect success like Switzerland, Fulham and West Bromwich Albion. At Liverpool however, success was demanded – after all, his predecessor, Rafael Benitez won the Champions League in Istanbul. Hodgson responded by buying Milan Jovanovic, Brad Jones, Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen. He falls in the same category as David Moyes, another underprepared manager who walked into his office in San Sebastian without knowing a lick of Spanish, and failed not unexpectedly. The job of a football manager is two-fold – the first is as a tactician, and the second is as a motivator, who instills confidence in his players. Roy Hodgson isn’t particularly good at either. Many have suggested that England’s repeated failures are caused by the weight of undue expectation on the players, but is beating Iceland really “undue”? Furthermore, in the 2014 World Cup, nobody expected England to emerge out of their group, and they duly obliged by finishing bottom. There is much else to say about England’s tactics in this tournament, from imbalanced team selection, to cowardly substitutions, to Harry Kane taking corners, but I will say no more because there are others who are far better at this sort of analysis than I am.
The final reason, of course, you guessed it, is to do with the greed of the Premier League. Our premise is not political one, but one that seeks corrective measures in a diabolically decadent league – where a club, like Chelsea, can stockpile 32 players out on loan just so their opponents can’t procure them.
Many pundits have pointed out that the failure of England is due to the abundance of foreigners playing in the Premier League – but is this really all there is to it? Why is it that Harry Kane, who was on fire (metaphorically, of course) in the white shirt of Tottenham, look completely out of sorts in the white shirt of England? For this, I have no answer – it is a riddle wrapped in an enigma. But this much is clear – think of Iceland. Or Hungary. Or Northern Ireland. Now close your eyes and put your cell phone away. How many of those players’ names can you recall? How many of them are household names ? Very few, I reckon.
Every footballer growing up wants three things – fame, fortune and women. For the lesser known players playing at lesser clubs in lesser leagues – the Euros and the World Cup are the one opportunity they are presented with, to showcase their talent in hopes for a better life, in front of a global audience. There is not much money playing football for a second tier club in Norway, where most of your income goes in taxes. But the Euros are THE tournament where every scout from every club is watching – and unheralded players are desperate to make their mark – one good tackle or cross is literally the difference between retiring in luxury, and retiring from football only to become a bouncer at a nightclub. Now, contrast this with the England players – where even a humiliating failure for National team makes no difference when you have millions of pounds in the bank, a Bentley in the garage and a WAG with access to the best plastic surgeon in town.
Other teams like the Germans, the French, the Spanish, etc might have similar problems – in fact, the famed Dutch football team ran into the very same issues during qualifying – hubris due to their World Cup 2014 performance, a master tactician in Danny Blind who lived up to his surname rather than his reputation as a player, and players like Memphis Depay who turns up to training in a 250,000 pound Rolls Royce. But at this year’s Euros, only England have the trifecta – arrogance, incompetant coaches, and overpaid stars, for whom playing well with the national team is very much optional. And this is why England have exited Europe twice in one week, and find themselves in the footballing purgatory yet again.