LONDON When England crashed out of the World Cup following its 2-1 defeat against Uruguay in mid-June, the tournament was barely a week old.
That Luis Suarez inspired victory for the South Americans, following Roy Hodgson’s side’s opening game 2-1 loss to Italy, ensured that England was going home from Brazil before the party had barely begun.
The scoreless draw with shock group winner Costa Rica on June 24 was merely a soporific sequel to a sorry saga which ensured that, once again, England’s finest were the whipping boys for the domestic media and millions of disgruntled, disillusioned fans, depressed once more by their country’s failure to offer all but the most minor threat in the sport’s major tournament.
That elimination, with one point from the three games, sparked the usual howls of national grief and anguish, the customary introspection, self-examination and declamatory declarations that things had to change. This nadir could not be experienced next time, declared the pundits.
Social media message boards, radio phone-ins and countless feature articles analysed the failure of a highly paid group of players who are normally lauded for their tenacity and talent and feted for their star quality. Virtually all came to the conclusion that they were overrated and overpaid, ”superstars” in name only and a long way behind some of their less heralded rivals in skill, technique and application.
That was barely seven weeks ago.
Those selfsame ”failures”, those products of a footballing ”culture of entitlement” which rewarded too many young Englishmen with riches beyond their deserving years before they had earned them, are all over the papers and television once again.
But this time they are being marketed, praised and primed as the stars of the show, the men that you must see, the players who will drive pay-television subscriptions and fuel the avaricious maw that is the English domestic game for another year.
The English Premier League, you see, is set to kick off this weekend and so many of the players traduced and scorned for their performances in Manaus, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte are now being lionised and sold to fans up and down the country as the must-see men for the new season.
Football fans – well, sports fans in general – tend to have short memories and are remarkably forgiving.
English supporters, fuelled by a hype-heavy media, appear to be more forgiving than most as they lap up news of their heroes’ pre-season exploits, drool at the prospect of new signings in new colours and merely shrug at the inflated transfer fees paid for English players compared for better qualified and more experienced rivals: the £30 million paid by Manchester United to Southampton for the latter’s 19-year-old left-back Luke Shaw a classic case of the curious phenomenon of English player inflation.
Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in it as the big kick-off looms and new, glamorous names, almost all foreigners, are added to the playing rosters for the new campaign.
Fans will worry about England when England is playing next, in a series of qualifiers for Euro 2016.
Should results not go to plan the same old arguments will be rehashed: there are too many overseas players in the league, preventing young English players the chance to develop at the highest level; English players get too much too soon and aren’t hungry enough for national glory; the standard of coaching at junior level is too low; the culture is all wrong; too many youngsters sit on their backsides playing video games. The list is endless, and few of the arguments are new.
The reality, of course, is that England has rarely been successful at international level while its club teams, initially from the old first division and in the past two decades, the Premier League, have.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s there weren’t many foreigners in the elite English division, yet the national side failed to even qualify for the World Cups of 1974 and 1978, nor 1994 either. Yet the likes of Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea all have, over the past 35 years, won the European Cup or the Champions League.
Club football has always been the key to the English game. And even though the hype and hoopla around the Premiership suggests a circus, and the number of foreigners earning a living in it grows each year, it still holds this country, and much of the world, in thrall.
It will do for the next nine months. Enjoy the big kick off …
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