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Why do England fail in international football competitions?

Updated Friday, 25th September 2015

The England Men's Football team doesn't have the most enviable record. Is this a structural problem? Laurie Taylor and Anthony King dig into the dug out to explore the reasons.

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Laurie Taylor:
You know I must say that as an unreconstructed Scouser, I'm not at the moment really very inclined to football pessimism but that mood quickly began to change as I read a new article in the journal, Sport in Society, an article called Why England Fails. It’s an analysis of the factors in English football which have impeded success at the international level. And its author, who now joins me, is Anthony King, who’s Professor of Sociology at the University of Exeter.

Supporters of England Creative commons image Icon Georgio under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license On their way to more disappointment?

I suppose we’ve got to go on being masochistic for a moment, I’ve got to ask you really, for the benefit of those people who don’t know, don’t remember, don’t wake up in the middle of the night screaming about it, tell me how England have fared, say, compared to their Western European neighbours.

Anthony King:
Well unfortunately, very badly. England refused to participate in the World Cups before the Second World War and then from the period 1950 – which was the first one after the Second World War – right through to the present we’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful in comparison with our neighbours and competitors. So we obviously famously won the World Cup in 1966, got to the semi-final in 1990 and, er, that’s it. In comparison of course West Germany and then Germany which have won three of both the World Cup and the European Championship, Spain are now on this extraordinary role with two European Championships and a World Cup, France won in 1998, Italy in 2006, even the Netherlands, which are distinguished as the under-performers, have actually reached three World Cup finals and won the European Championship. So it is bad.

Laurie Taylor:
You must stop, it’s getting dangerously close to masochism this, isn’t it. You go through the various factors that could possibly account for this underachievement and one is the "big structure" one – this is the establishment of the Football League in 1888. How did the consequences of this move interfere with England’s possible progress in international football?

Anthony King:
Well I think the key point here is to not blame the FA in an individualised way, blaming their secretaries, and the emergence of the Football League in ’88 was a key point, why? Because it demonstrated the power of the professional football clubs at that point under the Football League and essentially created decentralised fragmentary structure and process for English football in which it was difficult in the post-war period for the FA to organise and administer a successful national team.

Now when the FA took over the Premier League, one would have hoped and thought that some centralisation would be possible, they were now in charge of all of the major clubs and therefore all of the major English players.

But in fact, of course, the decisive point with the Premier League is the empowerment and enrichment of those decisive and major clubs. And so the problem of decentralisation of the centripetal power of the clubs has remained and indeed accentuated since 1992.

Laurie Taylor:
You point out, interestingly, that the administration of the game is handled differently in France and Germany, You’re all the time saying let’s look elsewhere.

I want to look at some of the other factors that you bring in. [For example] appointing the right manager, I mean goodness knows we’ve been through so many of these sackings and reappointments and new hopes are rising and then failure coming along. Wherein lies the failure to select the right person for the job?

Anthony King:
Well I think there’s an issue that there is a lack of qualified English managers which is actually accentuated with the Premier League. All of the great Premier League managers are foreign - remember Alex Ferguson is Scottish not English. But I think that there’s a problem in terms of both the selection of the managers – so the FA have tended to select potentially populist, popular managers, not necessarily hugely qualified; the FA are pressurised by the media into selecting certain candidates. The key example there would be the selection of Steve McClaren where it seemed that that selection was purely made because they made a mistake and released evidence of them negotiating a contract with Luiz Scolari pre-emptively which meant that Scolari left, leaving them with Steve McClaren who was hopelessly underqualified, as the results under his management show.

Laurie Taylor:
There was a vicious circle here. The populism, if you like, of the press leads to the appointment of particular managers who are not very good - but of course then when the press turns on them they are extraordinarily vilified aren’t they? I remember Graham Taylor – the super imposition of a turnip on his face, 1992 when we got out of the European Championships.

Anthony King:
Absolutely, I mean it created a nice link with the gardening theme from before – "that’s your allotment", was the title. But one of the key points I think there to know is that with the media in England we have an extraordinarily deregulated and powerful media which I think has been mischievous and indeed malicious at some points. Indeed in the Leveson Inquiry they’ve showed that Sven Goran Eriksson had had his phone tapped by the media and of course they had the News Of The World did that famous sting on him with the Arab Sheik, the fake Arab Sheik. So I mean the media are in an interesting position where they demand and desperately want English success, and yet systematically undermine the FA’s ability and England’s manager ability to deliver that success with the pressure they put on them.

Laurie Taylor:
We’re talking about the nature of contemporary capitalism, talking about global mobility, about mobility of labour, we’re talking about the influx of players who come into the Premier League - the old argument there are so many of them now that the English footballers don’t get a chance to show their abilities.

Anthony King:
Yeah, I mean this is a really important point and indeed it’s a complete canard. Greg Dyke raised it in the autumn last year, in September last year, as a key reason why England are not successful.

Two points here: remember it was the Professional Players Association both in Britain and in Europe which insisted that the Bosman Rule released all the restrictions on player movement. Note, those player restrictions were lifted for English players as well, they are just as free to compete for jobs, to play in European countries, in European clubs, they are the only national footballing professionals who do not take that opportunity up. 2012 European Championship the England side was the only side with no player that played in a foreign league. In other words the Champions League and the emergence of this transnational migration has actually improved other European and provided opportunities for other European players, it is the provincialism unfortunately of the English professional footballing culture which stops them and prevents them from taking these extraordinary opportunities which their compatriots and competitors in other European countries have taken up and I think that’s had a major impact on the level of skill and the development of our playing talent in this country.

Laurie Taylor:
You nicely talk about the sort of shifting emotions in anyone who follows the English team. I mean the over-expectation which existed at one time, I mean you compare that now with the almost profound rejection which is going on at the moment. Do you think we’re going to rally ourselves to be able to spend this summer with three lions on our chest and waving the St George’s flag?

Anthony King:
Well unfortunately not, I mean the fans are a crucial part of the success of the team and I think there have been problems in terms of both their sort of potentially arrogant position on English football in the past. But I think their resignation at the moment is totally realistic, I think unfortunately the summer will be unsuccessful, all of the commentators in the media and all the pundits have suggested that England will at best get through and more likely get eliminated at the group stage.

Laurie Taylor:
Whenever I ask a sociologist on this programme to predict anything they always back off and say that’s not what they do – what’s going to happen in the World Cup?

Anthony King:
Well I’m afraid to say that I would concur with the commentators and suggest that an early England exit is almost inevitable.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay Anthony King, thank you very much.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4,  16th April, 2014





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