The truth about English football

Image of Simon Kuper

I live in Paris, so on my rare visits back to England I get to see the place as an outsider. The other night in London I had a Chinese meal with old friends. It was just like old times, and so was the conversation: England’s decline.

This has been a favourite English topic at least since the Suez crisis of 1956. When Richard Ingrams put together an anthology of writing about England years ago, he thought of calling it Going to the Dogs. The recent riots, economic crisis and gormless England football team had given my friends fresh material, but I thought they sounded too pessimistic. I’ve long believed that the best way to understand England as a whole is through scrutiny of the national football team. Those 11 young men in cheap shirts are the nation made flesh. Studying football helps us see why the English are always beating themselves up, and why they shouldn’t.

England will qualify for Euro 2012 if they can simply draw in Montenegro next Friday. Yet as usual, the general English sense of decline hangs over the team. Last year, England made their ritual passage through a World Cup: phase one, hysterical over-expectation; phase two, elimination by Germany.

Afterwards, the team’s Italian manager, Fabio Capello, was chosen as ritual scapegoat. Pundits also blamed the many foreign players in England’s Premier League. These immigrants, the argument runs, block Englishmen from getting the experience they need for international football. This tabloid-led rhetoric should be familiar from English debate in spheres beyond football. There is the same overblown sense of England’s destiny – it should rule the world – and the same scapegoating of immigrants.

As so often in English life, the tabloid noise drowns out reason. The sports economist Stefan Szymanski and I argued in our book Soccernomics that it’s silly to expect England to win World Cups. This half of a mid-sized island is smaller than the historically dominant football nations (Germany, Italy, Brazil, Argentina and France), and no more experienced. The sociologist Stephen Wagg was right when he said that, “In reality, England is a country like many others, and the England football team is a football team like many others.” In fact, Stefan Szymanski and I calculated that England’s usual position as about the 10th best team on earth means it has overachieved slightly, relative to its limited resources.

True, England won the World Cup in 1966 – a perennial touchstone for disappointed nostalgics – but given that it hosted the tournament, and that home advantage is worth two-thirds of a goal per game in international football, this was hardly surprising.

We’re now updating Soccernomics, and have made an interesting discovery about Capello: he’s England’s most successful manager ever. He has won 26 of his 39 matches with England, with a winning percentage of 67 per cent. None of his predecessors exceeded 60 per cent. He’s not a flop. In short, foreigners are not England’s problem – they are the solution. Capello and the Premiership’s foreign players bring continental knowhow to insular English football.

It’s often said that England lose because there are too few Englishmen in the Premier League. In fact, the reverse is true: England lose in part because there are too many Englishmen in the Premier League. This is the world’s toughest league. Players at Chelsea or Manchester United have to peak every week – they cannot save themselves for the national team. They therefore often play for England while exhausted. England would probably do better if it exported players to calmer leagues, like Montenegro’s.

It’s England’s bad luck that big tournaments start in June, the time of maximum exhaustion for players from the Premier League. Recall that England’s star, Wayne Rooney, has played two World Cups half-fit. As his teammate Steven Gerrard wrote after another disappointing tournament: “The truth was that England were knackered at Euro 2004 … A long, hard season took a terrible toll.” I found similar claims in several English players’ autobiographies.

England’s peculiar scoring record in big tournaments also suggests player exhaustion. In every World Cup, most goals are scored in the second half of matches. That is natural, because after half-time, players tire, teams start chasing goals, and gaps open up in defences. But England, in their past six big tournaments, scored 25 of their 38 goals before half-time. The team’s record in crucial games is even more stark: in matches in which England were eliminated from tournaments, they scored eight of their nine goals before half-time. England tend to perform like a cheap battery.

These truths apply to spheres of English life beyond football. First, the country hasn’t gone to the dogs: it performs perfectly decently given its size. Second, England needs immigrant expertise. Third, successful Englishmen work too hard. That leads to mistakes. Listening to my friends describe their fatigue at dinner, I thought of Paris. It was a Friday night, when many successful Parisians would be disappearing to the countryside to chill. Meanwhile, the English were busy beating themselves up.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.