The problem with English players
The Premier League season hasn`t even begun, but just before kickoff this Saturday, English top flight clubs are going to have their preparations trashed by international games. By definition, the matches are 'meaningless` friendlies. Managers must be tearing their hair out that they`ll have half of Thursday and then Friday to try to put things together for the opening matches. What a shambles. What an indication of how club football is in hock to the international game.
Over the next few days, we are going to have to put aside Chelsea to hear a load of tiresome guff about the England team. Apparently Fabio Capello is going to expose his England players to the full booage of the Wembley crowd after England`s poor World Cup.
One wonders if Fabio Capello will allow the Wembley crowd to express their displeasure at how the World`s most expensively paid national coach can have overseen such a collective drop in the form of the players in the England team and played such unimaginative and rigid tactics, failing to adapt against such top-class opposition as Slovenia and Algeria. For if we are to apportion blame for England`s shortfalls, we should serve a generous slice to Fabio Capello.
Then again, let`s take a look at the England players versus their counterparts in some of the teams that did well, say, Spanish, German or Dutch players. The difference is pretty striking. One wonders why nobody has looked at this to try to identify why English players are so poor.
Let`s have a look at the winning attributes of these players. The Spanish team consisted of a bunch of well-balanced and nice blokes. They are players who are intelligent off the pitch. Who can speak to journalists in languages other than their own. Who have a modicum of an education. They are also (with some notable exceptions) modest kids. It`s hard to point to many of them having been involved in sordid tabloid scandals.
The same can be said of the Dutch or German players: yes, Robin Van Persie was embroiled in some very serious allegations a few years ago. Bastien Schweinsteiger is often on the wrong pages of the newspapers since he`s something of a hothead. They are, however, the exception: most of these players are likeable lads, intelligent and articulate. Well educated. They might well be rich beyond the dreams of the vast majority of their peers, they manage to handle that without going off the rails.
And on the one hand, let`s have a look at the England team, where you have the likes of (sorry) Ashley Cole or John Terry. Steven Gerrard. Wayne Rooney. Not to put too fine a point on matters, but these are no members of Mensa. These are kids who have received a limited education. They might be exceptional footballers, elite athletes, but in terms of schooling for life, they seem to have skived even their remedial classes. It shows in how inarticulate the players are, their inability even to mumble the minimum platitudes about 'playing good football`.
And then there is the English disease, the inability to handle the pressures (and temptations) off the pitch. How is it that there is such a disproportionate amount of English players so embroiled in scandals? Why can`t they manage their status, the wealth, and that has an effect on their behaviour, a sense of entitlement that has so skewed their moral compass?
The debate about the England team has centred around too many foreigners in England. Maybe we should ask some rather more penetrating and uncomfortable questions. Football in England is, traditionally, a working-class past-time. It`s a social ladder for people who otherwise have limited opportunities. That is, of course, an excellent thing. However, when combined with a traditional anti-intellectualism and laddishness (including a contempt for academic success), you get the disastrous results in England: players who are not bad on the pitch but failures off it. Sooner or later the off-pitch problems are going to affect the performances on the pitch.
Remember Graeme Le Saux? A 'cultured` left-back in both senses of the term, Le Saux was taunted mercilessly by Neanderthal fans (and Robbie Fowler): apparently the fact that Le Saux read The Guardian meant that he was a 'poof`. That`s the spirit dominating the dressing room in an English club. If anything at clubs the laddishness and thuggishness is mitigated by an influx of foreign players who tend to be better educated and more balanced than English players: for all his myriad faults, Adrian Mutu also holds a university degree in Law. Eidur Gudjohnson can speak five languages. Jamie Carragher, by contrast, has trouble with one.
That`s at the clubs. With the England team, however, it`s a convention of thickos. There are some exceptions: David James is a thoughtful bloke who writes newspaper columns about wider subjects such as the environment. Frank Lampard, famously, is a grammar school product who holds an A-level in Latin who combines intelligence on the pitch with academic qualifications. You get the impression that such players, however, are the minority in a group of people who will conform to lowest-common denominator behaviour; they are mocked for being 'too clever). Dumbing down. Faced with such a disdain for intelligence, no wonder that such unbalanced individuals go off the rails.
There is a wonderful example of how to get things write. It pains me to cite it, but what Barcelona has achieved is extraordinary. The club provided the backbone of the World Cup winning team: Xavi Hernandez, Busquets, Carles Puyol, Iniesta. Gerard Pique went on loan to ManYoo (it is noticeable that he`s the most rowdy member of the Spanish team) and then came back in. Pepe Reina was trained partly at Barça. So was Cesc Fabregas. Outside of the Spanish team, you have Lionel Messi. He might be no Joe Cole (yeah right Stevie G) but he has benefited from the same education and it shows.
The common thread is how well-balanced and modest these players are. You`d be hard pushed to identify a scandal involving such players. Somehow they manage to handle the pressures not only of playing at the very highest level but also all the life in the fast lane. The contrasts between the nauseating megalomania of Cristiano Ronaldo with the unassuming commendable modesty of Xavi Hernandez is absolutely striking.
There is a reason for this. All of these players are products of the Barça system at La Massia. All levels of the club, from the first team down to the youth players, are trained in a 'club philosophy` of how to play football, which has produced some of the finest footballers today. But the role of La Massia goes beyond this: kids are given an education and training in life. Granted, they also receive a certain indoctrination in Catalanism, but if parents entrust their kids to Barça, the club is going to look after them as athletes, but also as individuals and members of society. The role of the Academy at Ajax is somewhat similar.
There is a lesson here for English clubs. In their efforts to win and develop a quick return, many English clubs abandoned their academies 10 years ago. Now they have started to reinvest in youth (and new rules mean they will have to do so even more). We are, of course, delighted that Chelsea have made such an effort with the Cobham complex. But the role of the clubs in developing players has to extend a little beyond this.
English football clubs need to consider their players not only as a set of physical characteristics, they need to be developed as persons. It is not enough to take a bunch of 14 year-olds and offer them sports training for a couple of hours a day with the idea that everything else is someone else`s responsibility. Training offered to these kids should be more complete, in academic subjects (to develop their intelligence), not to mention preparation in life and how to handle the pressures should the players break into the top flight. Otherwise you will get players such Ashley Cole: arguably the best in the world in his position on the pitch, but a deeply flawed individual off the pitch. Or John Terry, Chelsea`s great youth product, but frankly now an embarrassment to the club due to his off-pitch transgressions.
English clubs need to break down the barriers separating the football pitch from the rest of life, and realise that in 2010, an exceptional player (or even a good one) needs to keep a sense of balance off the pitch, and that simply is not being offered by many English clubs. There are exceptions: it is not surprising that Arsenal, which has placed so much effort on youth development, has also invested in the development of its players as individuals. Then again, for all his insufferable pontificating, Wenger is one of football`s intellectuals.
And in a sad irony, class-ridden UK continues to favour working-class footballers at the expense of possible middle-class candidates. That`s not to suggest, at all, that footballing kids from middle-class backgrounds are 'better players` than those from working-class backgrounds, only that, as in life itself, further schooling and values placed on academic (as well as sporting) achievements might help such kids become more balanced, more rounded individuals, and better able to handle life at the top. Besides, it is a sociological fact that the UK`s middle-class constitutes the largest (and growing) section of society, it makes sense to try to draw in potential players from such backgrounds.
Until English football looks at the reasons why, in comparison with our rivals, the English team consists of a bunch of poorly-educated inarticulates who are prone to go off the rails, we will never understand why England loses. Our clubs have been entrusted with a duty to develop more young players (with the hope that this will help develop more English players), maybe they should also be asked to develop better balanced and more intelligent individuals.