Opinion: Football's liberal lessons

by Stephen Tall on December 5, 2007

Despite supporting Everton I’m a bit of a football fan, so I was interested to read this thought-provoking article by Simon Kuper in today’s Financial Times. He rejects some of the recent isolationist talk that England’s national team suffers from the lack of English players in the Premiership: “[the] problem is not that too few Englishmen play in the Premier League, but that too many do.”

Kuper points out the obvious: that it is statistically probable England will fail to qualify for some big tournaments:

England’s historical average yields a probability of about 62 per cent of qualifying for a major tournament. The team had qualified five times running before Euro 2008. But the probability of qualifying six times running with England’s long-term average is only 6 per cent.

He also argues that England’s top talents are over-played, with the Premiership living up to its name on a global basis:

… the league is all-consuming. Players have to give everything, every match. A Croatian playing in a smaller league can husband his energy so as to peak in international matches. But English players must peak for their clubs. That means they often start international matches tired and unfocused. … If England wants to perform better, it should export players to more laid-back leagues, such as Croatia’s.

But the biggest factor in England’s recent under-performance, Kuper argues, is English player’s tendency not to think about how they are going to play:

The English game follows an old-fashioned military model: managers command, players obey. Mr Eriksson discovered this in his pre-match chats with individual players. After outlining the opposition’s tactics in the player’s zone of the field, he would ask: “What would you do?” Often players would reply: “I don’t know. You’re the boss, Boss.”

Why have I posted this on Liberal Democrat Voice? Well, I hope the lessons are obvious. The simplistic knee-jerk of isolationism is not the explanation for England’s footballing woes. If our national team under-performs, we shouldn’t adopt the little-Englander mindset of the Daily Mail and Sun, and decide to turn our back on the rest of Europe.

Our national club game has become a world leader thanks to football’s vibrant global market for talent: England has – sometimes willingly, sometimes not – absorbed the best of what is international, and become the stronger for it. Our national team game fails not because we are dominated by foreigners, but when we close our ears to what we can learn from those overseas – chief of which is: don’t just do what you’re told, but learn to think for yourselves.