Sunday 21 December 2014

James Lawton: Spain's supreme reign puts English game in the shadows

Published 09/01/2013 | 05:00

We can argue until our faces are as red as a full-bodied Rioja, but the exclusion from the 2012 World XI of any trace of the Premier League is still some way the most damning indictment of the competition which still likes to call itself the best and most spectacular in the world.

It is bad enough that, with the disappearance of Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney, the domination of La Liga, having supplied nine members of last year's selection, has become total.

But that it should happen at a time when it also boasts the two clear favourites to reclaim the Champions League title, the one-two-three in the voting for the Ballon D'Or and also the near exclusive nurturing of Spain's three straight major international tournament victories, is surely one of the most dramatic achievements in the history of football.

Yet it is not just the scale of the Spanish triumph which is so breath-taking. It is the depth of its underpinning, the quality of its development of native talent.

La Liga's supreme performers, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, happened to be born in Argentina and Portugal, but in the team just elected the 'best in the world' they are joined, along with the Colombian sharpshooter Radamel Falcao of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona's Brazilian defender Marcelo, by seven home-grown Spaniards.

This is the nub of the matter, the one touched on so heavily by England's manager Roy Hodgson in the autumn with his bleak assessment that his team might, under the shadow of Montenegro and its population of less than a million, be required to take the play-off route to the 2014 World Cup finals.

When he added that he may have to pick players who did not command places in their club sides, he was supported by the most damning statistics.

They told us that on a September weekend English players represented only slightly more than 30pc of Premier League starters. By comparison, the French league gave the country's own players 62.7pc of places, Serie A 52.1pc and the Bundesliga 45.00pc. Out on its own, inevitably, was La Liga at 64.1pc.

When Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who once so brilliantly plundered the best of his native France, recently signed a clutch of English-born players, including Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, he reminded you somewhat of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dam.

He pointed to Spain – and Germany – as the leaders of the new supply chain of outstanding young talent.

Certainly, the plight of England's national team is underlined when you come to pick a Premier League team that could best challenge the world selection.

There are, of course, some arbitrary choices, but no one could argue that English contenders had been ill-served in the picking of a team which might read something like this: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Coloccini, Baines; Mata, Toure, Fellaini, Bale; Suarez and Van Persie. Indeed, when you consider the performances of Everton's American 'keeper Tim Howard, and Stoke City's Bosnian stopper Asmir Begovic, it can hardly be said that Hart sails home.

The overwhelming conclusion has to be that behind the shocking figures there is a story of neglect that the spectacle and wealth of the Premier League have never been less able to conceal.

If the Bundesliga lags behind Spain, France and Italy in the league table of native son opportunity, its 14pc lead over the Premier League scarcely reflects the degree of its superior contribution to the fortunes of its national team.

As Wenger pointed out with a sigh, it used to be France setting such standards.

Now it is Spain and Germany, for whom Borussia Dortmund have emerged glittering with youth and innovation and inspiring belief in some of the game's most enduring values.

But mostly it is Spain touching the stars, but also keeping their feet on the ground, most notably at the Barcelona academy, which recently supplied an entire first team.

When the great Messi received his fourth successive Ballon D'Or, he was not slow to acknowledge one of the supreme achievements of his adoptive land.

It is the man who has come to embody Spain's relentless hold on the imagination of international football, Andres Iniesta.

Among all his achievements, including the nerveless seizing of a once underachieving football nation's first World Cup on a draining night in Johannesburg and his masterful performance in the Euro final against Italy in Kiev last summer, arguably the greatest is the manner in which he bestrides the old divisions of Spanish football.

The 'Little Man from La Mancha' went to the Barca academy as a boy, a stranger from an austere part of the country finding his way amid the more convulsive emotions of the Catalans. Very soon he emerged as the heart and the fibre of Spanish football, the talent and the character who would not be subdued by the most obdurate opposition.

For the Premier League, and the wider demands of English football, there can never have been a more pressing need for such a creation.

Plainly it will take a little time and some considerable nerve. A new pattern will have to be shaped and with it there must be an old belief in the ability of the English footballer truly to compete at the highest level.

Johan Cruyff, who had a great impact on Spanish football, once said that English football was a force that would always be feared. However, that, we could not but be reminded this week, was rather a long time ago. (© Independent News Service)

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