Wednesday 17 January 2018

School's out for England and it shows on the pitch

Tommy Conlon

It probably wasn't the polite thing to say, but with another World Cup looming they felt perhaps that it was time to say it. So they pointed out that Wayne Rooney's father was a labourer, Steven Gerrard's likewise; John Terry's old man drove a forklift, Joe Cole's sold fruit and veg.

In saying it, they broke a taboo. They introduced a topic for discussion that certainly didn't come up when the tabloids and TV pundits were fulminating over another collapse in foreign fields: class and the English footballer.

In their book Why England Lose, published last year, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski went where Jimmy Hill and a thousand other Little Englanders had never gone before. Kuper is a journalist and the author of award-winning, heavyweight books on soccer. Szymanski is an economist specialising in the business of sport.

Last week, the England manager announced his provisional squad for the World Cup in South Africa. According to their thesis, Fabio Capello may be able to address one of England's endemic problems in the international arena -- its insularity.

"English football's biggest problem until very recently," write Kuper and Szymanski, "was probably geography. The country was too far from the networks of continental western Europe, where the best football was played."

By western Europe they mean Germany, France, Italy, and Holland in particular, presumably Spain and Portugal nowadays too. The region has about 400 million inhabitants, a mere six per cent of the world's population, but it is the powerhouse of the global game and dominated the 2006 World Cup.

The reason it dominates is its "knowledge network". Strong social networks, developed over centuries, generate industry, technology and wealth. "Western Europe excels at football for the same fundamental reason why it had the Scientific Revolution (in the 16th and 17th centuries.)"

The climate was benign, the terrain fertile, enabling hundreds of millions of people to inhabit a small area of land. "That is the densest network on earth. For centuries now, the interconnected peoples of western Europe have exchanged ideas fast. That is why so many of the great scientific discoveries were made there. These discoveries then helped make the region rich."

The same principle was at work when the football industry gathered momentum through the first half of the 20th century. With the post-war founding of the EEC, latterly the EU, the launch of the European Cup and its subsequent expansion as the Champions League, football's knowledge network accelerated in western Europe. "With the world's best footballers and coaches packed together, the world's best football is constantly being refined here."

Countries more on the margins "have traditionally had dysfunctional indigenous styles of football. The Greeks, for instance, dribbled too much. The Brits played mindless kick-and-rush." England's isolation intensified after its clubs were banned from European competition in the wake of the Heysel tragedy in 1985. "They lost what modest network they had."

While the Dutch, for example, were talking techniek and tactiek, England's FA director of coaching, Charles Hughes, was spreading the doctrine of the long ball. Slowly, painfully, English football has had to swallow its pride. It wasn't working anymore, despite decades of denial. Eventually they had to send for the foreigners. Kuper and Szymanski don't spare English sensitivities on this subject: "Capello is like one of the overpaid consultants so common in development economics, flying in on business class to tell the natives what to do. His job is to teach the English some of the virtues of western European football."

There's not much he can do, however, about that perennial English issue, the class divide, which the authors argue works in reverse in the national soccer industry. Here, the working class look down on the middle class.

One good indicator of social class is the profession of the person's father. A survey of the fathers of England footballers who played at the last three World Cups showed that only five out of 34 worked in jobs that required more than a basic formal education. "If we define class by education, then only 15 per cent of England players of recent years had 'middle-class' origins." But over 50 per cent of the male population as

a whole have qualifications beyond O-level. More and more, (England) is becoming a middle-class nation. Yet because football recruits overwhelmingly from the traditional working classes, it excludes an ever-growing swathe of the population."

Worse still, the game there has nurtured a chip-on-the-shoulder suspicion of learning and innovation. One national football administrator who worked for decades to introduce coaching courses told the authors his ideas were widely viewed "as some new-fangled thing got up by college boys. People would say, 'The Trouble with football today is that there is too much coaching'. That's like saying, 'The Trouble with school is that there's too much education'."

Most players in the British system leave school at 16. "The belief persists," write Kuper and Szymanski, "that only thus can they concentrate fully on the game. This is probably because British coaches and players tend to be suspicious of educated people."

Most good young athletes have talents that can be transferred to a variety of sports. A lot of middle-class boys drift into rugby or cricket. "Football competes with other ball games for talent, and it (has) scared away the educated middle classes." Still, chin up, there is some hope: Peter Crouch's Da worked in advertising.

Sunday Independent

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