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In 2009 the sports economist Stefan Szymanski and I published a book about football and data called Why England Lose. Going into the World Cup of 2010, people kept asking us: “Aren’t you worried about your title? What if England win?” We weren’t very worried, and predictably, England lost. Later we changed the title anyway, because it turned out (amazingly) that English people wouldn’t buy a book called Why England Lose.*
Still, our original title remains pertinent. England enter their last qualifying matches against Montenegro and Poland on October 11 and 15 very uncertain to qualify for next year’s World Cup. It’s time to explain, once and for all, why England lose.
Firstly, England just isn’t a special country. English fans and media historically expected too much. The delusion that the nation that invented modern football is destined to triumph is encapsulated in the England supporters’ song, “Football’s Coming Home”.
In fact, we should expect England to lose. Three factors predict much of a national team’s performance: size of population, length of football experience and wealth (rich countries generally do better at sport). England has a modest 53 million inhabitants; its national team has played no more matches in its history than most leading countries; and England isn’t exceptionally rich. Szymanski calculated that England should expect to be about the world’s 10th-best football country – and it usually is. Historically, in fact, England has marginally overachieved relative to its resources.
Believers in English manifest destiny always bang on about 1966, when England were world champions. However, that was with home advantage – worth two-thirds of a goal in the average international match.
When all England managers since 1966 are considered failures, perhaps expectations are overblown. After England’s ritual disappointment in 2010, the media and public suddenly acquired realism. Last year, Roy Hodgson became England’s first manager in memory whose appointment wasn’t greeted with hubris. Expectations were zero when his team travelled to Euro 2012, and lower today.
Since England overachieve slightly, the correct question is: “Why don’t England win even more?” How could they overachieve massively like Croatia, Uruguay or Portugal? The answers from people in football are mostly wrong.
A new consensus says that England’s problem is too many foreign players in English football. “Last weekend only 65 English players started in the Premier League,” Greg Dyke, the Football Association’s chairman, grumbled in September. “We already have a very small talent pool and it’s getting smaller.” Many people favour limits on foreign imports, to let in more English players.
However, England’s problem isn’t that there are too few Englishmen in the Premier League. On the contrary: there are too many. England would do better if the country’s best clubs fielded even fewer English players.
Dyke argues that “only” 65 Englishmen start in the Premier League. But in fact 65 is a huge number, more than any other nationality in the world’s toughest league. Englishmen get ample experience of top-class club football. Croatia, Uruguay and Portugal dream of having 65 starters in the Premier League.
Playing among excellent foreigners has probably helped English internationals improve. Indeed, England’s win percentage has risen since the foreign influx took off in 1996. Moreover, England have reached at least the last 16 of every World Cup since 1998, whereas previously they often didn’t qualify.
In fact, England’s players now probably play too much top-class club football. Fabio Capello – who, as England’s manager until 2012, won two-thirds of his matches (the best run in the team’s history) – explains convincingly why England underperform in summer tournaments: “They’re the least fresh of any of the competing national sides, because their league doesn’t have a break.” If you don’t refuel your car, says Capello, you can end up running on empty.
That happened to Wayne Rooney, England’s best player, who played two World Cups half-fit. It also explains why England, unlike most teams, score the bulk of their goals in major tournaments before halftime: 27 of 43 goals since the 1998 World Cup. After halftime, they are running on empty. England should consider shipping players from the exhausting Premier League to the more laid-back Croatian or Uruguayan leagues.
Alternatively, the English could steal foreign ideas. Probably because they live on an island, they don’t quite understand how to play football. English kids learn the wrong things. Youth academies here have enough money; more than, say, Spanish or Brazilian academies. But English youth coaching overvalues size and willpower, whereas what matters most is passing. As a youth coach at Barcelona told me, “If he’s small or if he’s tall, for us that is not important.” Spain became world champions by borrowing and updating Dutch “total football”. Germany and Belgium bucked recent declines by stealing best practices from around Europe. The English should try it, instead of fantasising about isolationism.
As the FT’s Janan Ganesh has noted, British tennis, cycling and cricket have triumphed by stealing foreign ideas. One day English football will follow. Even then, though, we shouldn’t expect to win World Cups.
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