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.

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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.

I’m not a statistics expert, but I vaguely remember something about previous rolls of the dice not affecting this roll of the dice…

by sanbikinoraion on December 5, 2007 at 5:07 pm. Reply #

tut, tut, tut . . .

We should be proud of being “Little Englanders” – don’t you know your history?

Little Englander – term of abuse coined by Conservatives, and applied to radicals who opposed their imperialist policies (19th Century)

by crewegwyn on December 5, 2007 at 5:14 pm. Reply #

I recently attended a rheumatology conference, in which one speaker (Nathan Hasan, Great Ormond St Hospital) was talking about genetic disposition to hypermobility. Basically, you can’t “bend it like Beckham” unless you are hypermobile, just as you can’t be a great ballet dancer. Sadly (for our football fans at least) UK born people are less prone to hypermobility than those of many other countries. The Brazilians are most prone to hypermobility. So the future for English football does not look good, whatever we do.

The stats point is not that SK is suggesting that we could predict which football tournament we would be knocked out of, rather that we would expect to be eliminated from 1 in 6.

by tim leunig on December 6, 2007 at 12:52 am. Reply #

Tim – sure, but having qualified for the previous five does not alter our probability of qualification for this tournament – simply because we flipped “heads” the previous five times has no bearing on the probability of flipping “tails” on this flip.

Of course I am assuming that each qualification is an “indepedent trial” which is of course not the case, but I think that common sense suggests that having qualified last time would indicate a higher probability of qualifying this time, not a lower one.

by sanbikinoraion on December 6, 2007 at 10:26 am. Reply #

crewegwyn: True, that’s the initial meaning, but politics has moved on a lot since then—now we’re internationalist by inclination, and the Tories have a huge number of “stop the world” xenophobes and anti-anything foreign types, while the official party line isn’t too far away from ours (presentation is completely different but basic message similar), the party memberships would largely like to withdraw from everything.

So we’re not little englanders, and haven’t been for a long time before I was born. Others are though.

by MatGB on December 6, 2007 at 11:34 am. Reply #

Damn glad that England are out of the finals. Now I can look forward to enjoying it without the typical English hyberbole.

As the Wales chant goes:
“Who the put the ball into England’s net?
Half of F***ing Europe!”

by Alun on December 7, 2007 at 10:24 pm. Reply #

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