Alex Chick

Face it: England aren’t elite and never have been

Alex Chick

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England captain Steven Gerrard squats dejected (Reuters)

Calls for the FA to restore England to the international football elite ignore one sobering fact - we have never been elite.

If the sheer limpness of their exit from Brazil achieved anything, it was to dampen the wailing and recrimination over their performance.


They were nearly out after losing to Uruguay, then definitely out after Costa Rica beat Italy, and by the time they had played their last game all anyone wanted to talk about was Luis Suarez’s front teeth.

Suarez saved Roy Hodgson much scrutiny – but as Germany crushed Brazil the question inevitably surfaced: why can’t we play like them?

England play like Germany? You might as well put a dog at a grand piano and expect him to bang out a Beethoven concerto just because you've given him the sheet music.

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Apart from one glorious anomaly in 1966 – when Alf Ramsey’s side played every game at Wembley – England’s history does not even bring them close to qualifying as an elite international team.

Of the 16 tournaments both countries have entered, 1966 is the only time England have outperformed (West) Germany.

Both teams reached the quarter-finals in 1962 - otherwise it has been a clean sweep for the Germans, who have extended their streak of getting further than England to 12 tournaments and 44 years.

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Germans must laugh when we talk about our ‘rivalry’ with them. Doesn’t rivalry require a degree of balance?

Sure, we thumped them 5-1 in Munich. Right before they reached the World Cup final with their worst side for decades and we crashed out in the quarters.


This week the Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter wrote an interesting piece about the regeneration Germany underwent after their group stage exit at Euro 2004.

But the scale of the calamity would barely register on an English scale.

The shambolic campaign came two years after a World Cup final, eight years after winning Euro ’96 and 14 years after lifting the World Cup. What crisis?

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Over here, we cite a triumph half a century old as proof that it is when, not if, we win the World Cup again. How long do England have to 'underperform' before we recalibrate our expectations?

Nobody in 50 years has struck on a formula for improvement, but an overhaul of youth coaching has to be a decent starting point, and one St George’s Park aims to achieve.

Opponents of change voice a widespread misconception; that adopting elements of systems used abroad merely represents copying a soon-to-be-outmoded ideal.

Here’s Richard Keys in typically Luddite form.

“Anyone remember trying to replicate the Dutch? And then setting up something like Clairefontaine because the French won the World Cup? And then trying to mimic how Barcelona and Spain had done it? But the big difference was they had Xavi and Iniesta and Messi (sic).

“And now here we go again – a clamour for total reconstruction in order that we can arrive where Germany are now in 10 years. I honestly just don’t get it.”

No Richard, you don’t. Nobody’s saying we need to copy Germany’s precise style of play – just learn from the methods they (and France, and Spain, and Holland) have used to develop scores of talented players and consistently successful national teams.

Superficially, Keys is right - Clairefontaine’s physical, disciplined style was superceded by La Masia’s tiki taka, which in turn has given way to the German clubs’ fast, technical, pressing football.


Why bother trying to play like the Germans, when by the time we manage it someone else will have come up with a better idea?

But what unites France, Spain and Germany is not style but substance – good, well-trained coaches working with young players and helping them develop a clearly-defined method of play.

It hardly matters what the method is – just that players at every level use it.

Keys argues that football is football, monolithic and unchanging, adopting his best Alan Partridge to claim that modern techniques and terminology are just vanity.

“It’s like reinventing the wheel; it’s always going to be round. You can put different hubcaps on it...”

Of course, had Neolithic man been anything like Keys, he would have seen nothing wrong with dragging his possessions around and the wheel may never have been invented.

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Keys’s solution? “Stick to doing what we do well”, which as we have seen is not very much, beyond relying on outmoded stereotypes.

“How about we try something really different and play upon the skills that we’ve got, England, as a nation ... big heart, spirit, determination.”

Where other countries consider such attributes an essential base onto which technical skills can be grafted, there is still a body of opinion that sees them as an acceptable alternative.

Just one reason why, even though the English invented Association Football, we have never been much good at it.

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