Another couple of dismal football performances from England’s ‘Golden Generation’ (ho-ho!) against Israel and Andorra the other week. No surprise there. In thirty-five years of avid sports-watching, bar a few games in Euro ’96, I cannot think of one England football team that has looked like world-beaters/ world contenders, still less – and this goes across all team sports – an England team that is attractive to watch; that plays what Surinamese-Dutch maestro Ruud Gullit liked to call ‘sexy football’, the type that my club team the mighty Spurs have been famous for for over a century. Only in England could a sportsman like rugby player Jonny Wilkinson, a guy adept only in the most prosaic parts of his profession – tackling and kicking a dead ball – be accorded the status of national hero. As French rugby coach Bernard Laporte said so eloquently before the 2003 World Cup semi-final, ‘No-one carries the English in their hearts’.
If you believe, as many do, that national character, national aspirations, comes through in countries’ sporting teams, then the long history of Sport England tells you that this is a country where mediocrity is celebrated; one that likes, nay fetishises hard work – that Protestant mindset again – but has little regard for flair or rigour. Any fule, with a schoolboy level of physics, could tell you that the key to success in most ball games (and, indeed, in chess) is force, space and time, and the manipulation of these. But because the vast majority of English football players are so lacking in touch and passing ability, they constantly lose out on these last two. Just look at the Dutch, a country that has had to think very seriously about the best use of limited space – given that most of the country is under water – and how creatively successive generations have played (Bergkamp, Cruyff etc)
Right now, there is the usual BS in the newspapers about the English Premier League being the best in the world, on account of three English sides making the semi-finals of the Champions League. Don’t make me laugh. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Faroe Islands – population, 10 – had a higher general quality than the Premier League. What England has are five good club teams, and most of these stuffed with foreigners – Spurs, Arsenal (the blackest Euro club team since Ajax’ great mid 90s team), Man U, Liverpool and that little Fulham-offshoot who I can’t stand who think they’re a big club but can only muster about a thousand supporters for away games. The other fifteen are mediocre or worse. They just hoof the ball about. The League is popular because it’s exciting; there are lots of goal chances because neither side can keep posession for longer than thirty seconds. That, plus the fact that there’s untold money in the game here which means big glamorous ‘stars’. In terms of money against real quality, the Premier League, along with the art market, are the two biggest scams in the world.
For any aesthete, anyone sensitive to the potential beauty of a sport, watching England play anything is an excruciating experience.There are only three things that can save Sport England. One, improve the education system. Intelligence helps in everything (just compare, say, Scottish football players to English players in a post-match interview, never mind the continentals, and you’ll know what I’m talking about). Two, stuff the England sides with recently-arrived immigrants (where would the English cricket team be now without Kevin ‘too many blacks in South Africa’ Pietersen?). The third is a proper cultural Reformation.
In the meantime, let us pray for the Windies in the World Cup cricket. Arh! – too late already.