In the twelve years I have been following the English national football and rugby union teams I have read numerous match day reports, opinion pieces, tweets and online comments, both prior to and following an international match or tournament. I have listened to radio phone-ins and watched pre and post-match analysis. I have been fascinated by debates around team selections, tactics and the latest news from inside the training camp.
While the comments and insights given by journalists and pundits are interesting, the opinions of ordinary fans are equally, if not more, intriguing, especially when individuals offer various theories to explain the national team’s shortcomings.
Starting with football, it has been a popular mantra to blame “pampered millionaire lifestyles” to explain our team’s shortcomings in tournaments and in big games. What this doesn’t explain is why the multimillionaires that make up the German and Spanish national teams, along with a series of high-level club sides such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Manchester City have enjoyed success. Elite club and international sides are stuffed with players earning huge salaries but their bank accounts, sports cars and designer clothes don’t seem to have an adverse effect on their performances.
Fans also highlight a “lack of passion” among our international players. I don’t think anybody would deny that passion, grit and patriotism are admirable and important attributes for athletes to possess, but these are not the only ingredients for success. This was exemplified in the Euro 2012 quarter final against Italy. On that night the England team battled hard, putting in a valiant defensive effort and kept the Italians at bay for two hours. The problem was not a shortage of passion or work ethic. In a number of areas, the English were simply second best. The Italians controlled the game, enjoyed more possession, created more goal-scoring chances and were, ultimately, better at penalties. This brings us to the next point, England’s woeful record from spot kicks, which currently stands at just one victory out of seven. In eleven tournaments in which England has participated from the 1990 World Cup through to Brazil 2014, we have exited six through the dreaded shootout.
Penalties have consistently been an Achilles heel for England and the national team’s record has prevented them from progressing to semi-finals and finals of international tournaments. If a team reaches the knockout stages of a World Cup and European Championship then there is a fair chance that they will face a penalty shootout. It is therefore imperative that England work to slay this bugbear.
As rugby union players do not earn the fortunes that their football counterparts receive, England rugby internationals are not readily accused of being lazy multimillionaires, bored by England duty. However I have encountered a few posts which claimed that England’s disappointing World Cup display was due to a low number of “working-class” players in the squad. Disparaging comments were subsequently made about the high number of players who had attended fee-paying schools. Two-thirds of the World Cup squad were privately educated and were thus regarded as being “too privileged” and therefore unwilling to put in the hard yards on the pitch and in training. I don’t know whether they have been following the same rugby that I’ve been following. Two of England’s brightest talents last season, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, attended independent schools. Ex-captain Chris Robshaw, a player with a prodigious work rate and an excellent defender, is, like Joseph, an Old Millfieldian. England has consistently produced many successful and talented privately educated players: Wilkinson, Dallaglio, Carling, the Underwood brothers and many more.
One comment attributed the media’s focus on Sam Burgess and the scrutiny over his selection by England to “elitists” in newspaper offices and at the RFU, who took a dislike to Burgess because he was a rugby league convert who had attended a state school in Yorkshire.
It is true that it is only a minority of people who are posting these opinions and I am not suggesting for one minute that they are representative of the wider English supporting population.
All English football and rugby fans will admit that our national teams have their problems and weaknesses. But attributing these to footballers’ salaries or where our international rugby players went to school? I’m not buying it.
Plenty, if not most, fans aren’t either.