The nineteenth century witnessed a burgeoning of individual and team sports, the lion share of which had the genesis in England. By establishing, codifying and disseminating sport throughout the world the English and to a lesser extent the Scots, Welsh and Irish could easily claim to have been the champions of competitive sport. By far the most successful of the sports to have originated from the British Isles is Association Football, an activity that which is now a multi-million pound business and a global phenomenon. The Beautiful Game, as it has been dubbed, has a following that is truly worldwide. Yet still England as the spiritual Home of Football continues to exercise a near magnetic pull on international footballing talent that other nations can only dream of. Yet for all the extraordinary success of the English Premier League, the national team consistently under performs on the international stage, a fact that exasperates fans and pundits alike. This surely begs the question: Why?
For those looking for a straightforward answer, the most obvious explanation lies in the English language itself. Being the wellspring of the most successful language of modern times has proved both a blessing and a curse. English offers a near perfect access all areas language, one that Britons routinely take for granted. The downside of being the home of a global language is that Britons have little motivation or incentive to learn other languages. Regrettably the British generally comes across as having an aversion to foreign languages, something that appears to foster an attitude of complacency. A direct consequence of this is the fact that very few English footballers, especially in the early part of their career seek opportunities on the continent or further afield. The same lack of international experience bedevils scouting, back room and management personnel. Time abroad is often viewed of being of limited experience and even an impediment to advancement in the English game. English football seems obsessed with visibility at home, a fact that acts as a deterrent to those seeking to broaden their footballing CV, as well as seeing and experiencing how things are done elsewhere.
If language has a part to play in the myopia of the English game, the same could be said to be true of the over inflated view of the home game. The fact that English clubs attract foreign owners and legions of foreign players invariably skews the way in which the game is viewed at home, a point made worse by the astronomical salaries that are played for those fortunate to make it in the English Premier League (EPL). Sports media coverage in the U K tends to compound matters, by paying scant regard to what takes place in other countries. For all their rich tradition, the BBC, ITV, Sky Sport, BT Sport, along with the print media are obsessed with the matters at home and give little or no thought to activities elsewhere. Commentators invariably have precious little knowledge of overseas leagues or setups, especially outside the major European leagues and clubs. Such parochialism stands in marked contrast to the quality of access, coverage and analysis being offering by the likes of beIN Sports. Effective leadership always demands that one takes a keen interest in one's contemporaries and seek to emulate best practise. Sadly football in England has yet to learn the value of international experience or of being sufficiently curious enough to want to draw inspiration from what is taking place elsewhere. Whilst it would be churlish to deny that there is much to be proud of across the footballing spectrum in the British Isles, the lionisation of the English Game has resulted in unrealistic expectations and a seeming inability to test the validity and effectiveness of existing structures.
Commentators and pundits have long pondered the reasons for the failure of the national team and the lack of success of English Premiership teams in international tournaments. Flaws have been identified in existing scouting practises, training regimes and the ability to engage with potential talent from across the board. It has not gone unnoticed that British Asians are woefully underrepresented in the English game. The lack of talented ethnic minority figures in senior leadership and management roles is also a matter of concern.
Other observers have expressed grave reservations about the destabilising role of football agents as well as the apparent lack of hunger and determination of players at a national level. It is also evident that vested interests remain bulwarks against effective change. It is certainly a fact that English football scouts have been notoriously slow to recognise the pool of international soccer talent to be found in India, the Magreb, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.
History as ever affords some valuable pointers. Everyone associated with English football would do well to familiarise themselves with the England's matches against Hungary in 1953 and 1954. As if a home defeat of 3 - 6 at Wembley (25/11/1953) was not shock enough, the return match in Budapest (23/5/1954) saw Hungary give England a football master when they beat England 7 - 1. There was no hiding from the fact that England had been shown to be tactically and technically inferior, something that resulted in a realisation that there was a urgent need for an overhaul of training, tactics and mindset. Within a dozen years sufficient progress had been made for England to be in the position to win the World Cup.
For all the commercial success of the English game as things stand English football (and for that matter that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is unlikely to cut it on an international stage. Longtime observers of the Football Association and the Premiership appreciate that any prospect of effective change will be more in hope than expectation.
Mark T. Jones
International Speaker & Leadership Specialist