1 opinion is conjecture, 2 moves us toward a consensus. Firstly Paul Scholes, in a tellingly un-Paul Scholes manner, delved into the recesses of his mind to confront the issues surrounding his departure from International football. This was cathartic promotion, garnering headlines and coverage for his upcoming testimonial. Secondly Gary Neville, who just likes to talk, no excuse necessary, chose to continue his former teammates theme; The England international set up is drowning in selfish and self-involved footballers, more concerned with personal gain and maintaining their England status than being part of a successful team. Who knew?
For Scholes, the ultimate shunner of the constant spotlight of the modern game, his point focussed around his compatriots attention seeking. “”When there is a simple pass of 10 yards, they might try and smack it 80 yards. They will do things to try and get themselves noticed.” Lamenting players from “your Aston Villas’” Scholes felt that the ethic of the England team was continually compromised by players’ desire to garner attention, move to a bigger club, and on to further attention and royalties. Neville was slightly less scathing, less matter of fact, more nuanced perhaps in the conflicts that abound for England internationals. Whilst conceding that no one from the England set up would disagree with Scholes, certainly in private, Neville attributed the chasm between expectation and delivery to ‘fear’, generated principally by the media.
These assertions hardly register as news to me, more supporting evidence. I hold the England setup in extremely low regard and my desire for England to do well has been so eroded, by their insomnia solving football and sick in a car footwell behaviour, that it remains for one reason alone; I want them to achieve because it would make my Dad happy. Beyond that I have no time for international football. It detracts from the main spectre of The Game, i.e. The Premier League and Champions League (that’s Tuesday and Wednesday nights for those that may have forgotten) and serves, in relation to the media, to simply illustrate in microcosm much that is wrong with British football journalism; baseless optimism and silly hats pre-match, unbridled vitriol and cut-out-and-burn effigies post-match.
I am in a vast minority, however. FIFA believes, so let us not question, that 2.2 Billion people watched at least 20 minutes of the 2010 World Cup. Among that number there is still a passion and belief that International football is the absolute pinnacle of any playing career. Except for in England. Neville mentioned the contrast in camaraderie between England and the other leading International nations, citing the lack of hugging in the tunnel as evidence. Perhaps this can more reasonably be attributed to the very nature of being English, and all the repulsions towards physical contact that this entails. But for me he is on to something. There is such pressure and scrutiny that playing for England has inevitably become a chore, so marked in contrast to the atmosphere of club football that the drop outs from an England friendly can be predicted more easily than the starting eleven.
Neville connects this lack of camaraderie to the media’s involvement (whilst surely remembering who his new paymasters will be?) suggesting that the pressure is so great as to create divisions within the camp as players follow ‘personal agendas’. This is an oversimplification. Of course the media pressure is both ever present and ludicrous, wholly disproportionate to the standing of the English national team on the world stage. But it is a confluence of factors that has led to the international team being so poor. Neville speaks of a ‘mixture of people’ in contrast to a team, a lack of camaraderie and a suggestion of a divide. To undermine his point slightly, I would suggest that in his 13 years of international football he did as much as anyone to stoke and widen that divide, one that is believed to have focused around the United and Liverpool players; anecdotal evidence suggesting that the two sets of players would eat their meals at separate tables when things were at their worst.
Other contributing factors to the divide in success between England and Spain, using Scholes’ comparison, would of course be from a technical and tactical perspective. Technically, English players lack the first touch and composure on the ball of their Spanish counterparts. Surprisingly, or not, running around full size pitches with 21 other players from the age of 6 is not a good grounding for professional sportsmen. Consequently we have produced 1 player of Scholes’ quality in the last 20 years, whilst the Spanish churn them out as a matter of course.
England’s cowed exit from the most recent world cup serves to illustrate the poor retention of the ball, abominable distribution from defence and rigid adherence to an outmoded formation which have all led to the disintegration of belief regarding the England set up. But fundamentally the team ethic and camaraderie of England has been lost because the vast majority of the players are scarcely redolent of normal human beings, let alone role models. Almost to a man they are the sort of guys you would avoid in the pub. Which brings us to a very important point, a telling contrast. Looking at the Euro 96 team, our last team that had a modicum of success and belief, I would happily sit down with any of those players and have a beer. The current England set up? No chance. Of the team that started against Germany, each and every one appears to be a prima donna and a money grabbing mercenary – no wonder it’s so hard to build that team ethic. No wonder it isn’t hugs all round. Our national team is full of scum bags.
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