Reflections on the state of English football
With the opening stages of the 2014 football world cup well underway, thoughts once again turn to pride and prestige as many of us across the globe hope to witness our team get their hands on one of sport’s most sought after trophies. The media in England has no doubt been awash with confusing contradictions of expectant hope, yet inevitable resignation to disappointment and failure.
Retired players fill the BBC and ITV studios spouting clichés and stating the obvious (and if you’re poor old Phil Neville, boring the socks off viewers!), whilst certain tabloid newspapers call on football fans to summon that ‘bulldog spirit’ and wave the St George’s cross with pride and vigour. Baddiel and Skinner fill the airwaves, and we find ourselves staying up until the early hours to see how the clash between Iran vs. Nigeria ends.
I write this with a certain pomposity but also hypocrisy, as deep down I love this four week period. There is something magically compelling about the football world cup, and if truth be told, I have found myself googling facts about the Bosnia manager, statistics about Honduras’ previous world cup appearances, and the national anthem of Switzerland.
On Saturday evening I set my alarm for 3.45am so that I could wake to watch England’s opening game with Italy, which kicked off at 4.00am here in Bangladesh. Earlier that day I pinned my flag of St George to the bars on my small balcony, which overlooks the narrow street below, in anticipation for the chance to erase the memories of being sat in a cramped bar in Rwanda and witnessing England capitulate against Germany in 2010.
However, in the days leading up to the start of the tournament one question consumed my thoughts. It wasn’t who I supposed Roy Hodgson would select for the right back position, or which player would belt out the national anthem with the most exuberance. No, I was a little confused by the implications of a rapidly transformed Bangladesh.
Over the course of a few days prior to the opening game, the streets became a festival of colours with flags hanging from windows, painted on walls and pinned to car bonnets, and also commonly attached to rickshaws. As I looked around and began to notice more and more flags, it dawned on me that my red and white cross of England was quite unique.
Chittagong and Dhaka are overwhelmed by the distinctive blue and white of Argentina and the trademark yellow and green of Brazil. German flags also feature prominently, whilst Spain, Italy, Portugal and France have their fair share of fans. Yet, England is strikingly underrepresented. It may sound arrogant and presumptuous, but I have been left a little puzzled by this.
Having witnessed many enthusiastic responses to England’s cricket team from Bangladeshis, I assumed football would be no different. In a country where the English Premier League is so revered, and the replica shirts of England’s domestic teams dominate the markets, I couldn’t help but wonder just why the England national team doesn’t command a similar level of support. After reflecting upon this, and also having sought the views of friends and students, I have concluded that it represents something of a worrying indication of the state of English football.
The reasons offered by my Bangladeshi students and friends when I posed this question made a lot of sense. Football is unquestionably popular here, yet the national team is currently ranked 35th in Asia and 167th in the FIFA world rankings. Therefore realistically it seems unlikely at this point that a first ever World Cup finals appearance for Bangladesh is imminent, and so to engage with the big stage events such as the World Cup, people choose an adopted country to support.
As one of my students put it, “By supporting a team and hoisting their flag, we just want to be part of the greatest show on earth.” It is on these occasions that people get the chance to connect with the sport on a whole new level. So why do Argentina and Brazil dominate people’s affections here?
Well, everyone likes a winner. It’s the reason the sight of a Manchester City shirt has become far more common in the past year or so here in Bangladesh. It also explains why I receive blank looks when I tell people I support Plymouth Argyle. Brazil have lifted the World Cup five times and Argentina are a consistent performer. Germany and Italy also both have a reputation for success when it matters, and the emergence of the Spanish flag is no coincidence given their consecutive triumphs at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championships.
Naturally many people here don’t remember, or are unaware of Geoff Hurst’s hatrick at Wembley in 1966, or our countless penalty heartaches, and thus we (England) have built a reputation of being distinctly average.
The style of football is also important. The samba skills of South America are a major factor. There is passion and art, with crisp, short, sharp passing, mazy runs, cheeky dinks and thunderous shots on goal. This is what people want to see when they tune in to see the stars of the world stage. They don’t want to spend 90 minutes witnessing teams hoofing a football 80 yards, or scoring and then positioning all ten players behind the ball. People want to see pace and skill and this is why Bangladeshis have taken South American teams to their hearts.
The continent is home to two of football’s biggest legends – Messrs Pele and Maradona. Their fame is felt here in Bangladesh too, and as one friend explained in reference to the ‘Hand of God,’
“Some Bangladeshis have a crazy kind of infatuation with him. His cocaine induced antics plus his blatant disregard for the laws of the game and some serious skills too, won millions of hearts.”
Maradona’s legacy clearly lives on, but in addition Argentina and the world (including Bangladesh) now have a new legend to worship – Lionel Messi. Undoubtedly close to cementing himself into football folklore, Messi has given people here even more reason to back the Argentinians.
England have fallen behind in the global popularity stakes. We just don’t have a genuine global star anymore; a player that excites fans across the globe and creates anticipation and expectation when the ball is at his feet. Argentina has Messi, Brazil has Neymar, Portugal has Ronaldo, Uruguay has Suarez, Italy has Pirlo, Spain has Iniesta, and the Dutch have Van Persie. We have Rooney. As much as we may want to believe otherwise, Rooney is not a global superstar. David Beckham is the last player to represent the England national team who captured the imagination of fans right across the globe, and even then I’m inclined to say it wasn’t solely due to his performances on the pitch.
“The English Premier League is the best in the world.”
These are the words that echo through the corridors of the FA Headquarters in London as executives pat themselves on the back whilst watching the global sponsorship deals roll in. TV broadcasting contracts have completely changed the face of English football, yet as I walked the streets of Chittagong and Dhaka this past week, it became apparent in my mind at least that this has had little effect on our national team.
The Premier League is, and consistently has been a veritable feast of footballing talent. Drogba, Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira, Van Nistelrooy, Suarez, Zola, Toure, Torres, Silva, Aguero, etc, etc. As spectators we have been thoroughly spoilt. Yet, where are the home grown players stamping their authority on the international scene? The Premier League is undoubtedly a phenomenal importer of global talent, but when it comes to exports we are a long way behind. In my mind this is reflected in our performances at international level, and thus, as a result we lack success, we lack entertainment, and we lack appeal.
Am I denying the English Premier League has revolutionised the game of football for the better in many ways? No. And has it pushed the limits and the levels of performance from players and teams to a new level? In many ways, Yes. However, somehow in England, where many of us follow our domestic and national teams avidly, we have been left behind. We need to find a way to catch up, and we need to catch up fast.
Do I want the England flag to be flown all across Bangladesh during the next cup? No, I don’t, for many reasons, and some of which are more obvious than others. That’s not the point of this blog post. I would just like our FA to recognise and acknowledge that whilst the Premier League is of course a mechanism for so much development, it is also imposing a stranglehold on the development of our young home grown talent that if not loosened will be felt for many years to come.
I’m posting this just hours before England’s crucial group clash with Uruguay, and therefore by the time you read it the national team will either be preparing for the next crucial encounter (against Costa Rica), or we will be lamenting another disappointing exit from a major tournament. I would really love the England team to shine in this world cup and to make me reconsider everything I’ve just written, and I would love to be able to support a team that entertains, inspires, and captures the imagination of football fans right across the world.
However, as Bangladesh has shown me, unless we change our game right from the grassroots and start focusing on more than simply how much money our top teams can make, we will continue to slip down the international ladder.
Enjoy the rest of the tournament!
All photos © John Stanlake