The initials of our Football Association can also stand for a colloquial expression meaning ‘nothing’. That’s exactly what England got last night. That’s exactly what England deserved.
The other day I wrote that winning a football match shouldn’t be a cause for a jingoistic orgy of triumphalism. Neither is losing a match a national tragedy.
However, football is a microcosm of life in many ways, especially since the game is run by a giant public corporation, the FA. Hence football isn’t impervious to problems besetting life outside its grass pitch, and some of those problems doomed our team to defeat.
In the good tradition of Aristotelian induction, let’s start from observable facts. One of them is that England is currently blessed with the greatest pool of talented players I’ve ever seen in the 50 years of following English football.
Many a ‘golden generation’ came and went, but none has glittered as bright as today’s lot. Yet the FA and its faithful stooge Southgate, the England manager, never learned something any child would know.
A country may boast a regiment of Beckenbauers, Maradonas and Messis, but they aren’t going to win a football game unless they are on the pitch. Now, we have several young players who are the match of anyone in the world tactically, creatively and technically.
Yet of these, only two, Foden and Grealish, made the squad, even one enlarged to 26 players due to Covid. Foden started just two matches; Grealish, none – this though he changed the game every time he came on as a late substitute. He did that in the semi-final too, only for the substitute to be instantly substituted.
Our commentators ascribed that boycott to Southgate’s deep strategic insights. In fact, it’s corporate CYA (Cover-Your-Arse) thinking at its most blatant.
Big corporations, especially public ones, distrust idiosyncratic flair. Safety first is their motto, and brilliant talents tend to be unsafe or, in the corporate lingo, high maintenance. They try the unconventional, they take risks. And risks sometimes don’t pay off. Also, their lifestyle may fall short of the monastic standards fulsomely proclaimed by the FA.
Someone like Grealish may hit a pass no one else in the team would even see but, every time such a pass goes awry, the corporation man sees a redundancy notice flashing before his mind’s eye. When the pass connects, the team scores, but that’s not much of a consolation for the functionary.
It’s that type of thinking that shaped Southgate’s team selections throughout the tournament. The idea was to get the odd goal and then hang on for dear life.
Anyone who has ever followed football would have known that such a strategy wouldn’t work against top teams on form. There were several top teams in the tournament but, other than England, only two were on form: Spain and Italy.
England lost the final to Italy and would have lost to Spain too if the luck of the draw hadn’t pitted those two teams against each other in the semis. Other than Italy, England had to play only two top teams, Croatia and Germany, but they are both aging and in transition.
Southgate did his corporate best at the press conferences, which is part of his appeal to the FA. Any England manager must have the panache of a PR flack and the CV of a monastic novice. In relatively recent years, two managers, Venables and Hoddle, each miles better than Southgate, were dismissed for failing to meet such exalted criteria.
Unlike them, Southgate willingly toes the FA line. Unlike Venables, he wasn’t touched by a shadow of fiscal impropriety in an earlier job. Unlike Hoddle, he didn’t impose esoteric faith-healing practices on the team, nor make public statements out of tune with our woke times.
Also unlike them, he doesn’t emit a single spark of creativity, but that doesn’t matter to the FA. Like any giant public corporation, it has higher concerns than its core business.
What matters more than attacking, entertaining football is conformity to the woke diktats of modernity. That’s why the FA demanded that the players ‘take the knee’ to signal their solidarity with a subversive Marxist group. And that’s why they are encouraged to take active part in all sorts of social initiatives, some worthy, some otherwise.
The players are supposed to be the models our youngsters will follow, and, under Southgate’s tutelage, they try their best. Yet I’d suggest that illiterate chaps covered head to toe with horrendous tattoos set a bad example even before they open their mouths.
I’d also suggest that both they individually and the England team collectively would do better if they devoted more effort to their craft and less to ‘issues’. Thus Rashford, according to one admiring hack, is “a force for such good in English football and society”. Well, he should have spent more time practising penalties than being a force for good. As it was, his miss contributed to England’s defeat.
When England began to scrape through the early stages, Southgate was hailed as a genius. This decent but boring man did his best to respond. England was playing a game shaped in their manager’s image, decent and boring. But, Southgate explained to the uninitiated, “we are here to win, not to entertain”. Yes, Gareth, but, with a few exceptions here and there, the two go hand in hand at the top level.
Southgate’s selections for the final reflected his disdain for entertainment. Eight of England’s 11 were defenders by trade, one was a goal-to-goal midfielder, and only two did attacking for a living. Every team needs a balance, as Southgate never tired of repeating. It was hard to detect one there.
Amazingly, that idea worked initially. The Italians gasped with disbelief when seeing a team made up almost exclusively of defenders and, before they got their breath back, England scored in the third minute. Italy was shaken, and a dedicated surge could have easily produced another goal or two, putting the game to bed.
But that’s not how corporation men think. Venables or Hoddle would have thrown men forward; Southgate pulled them back.
England began to put 10 men behind the ball, especially in the second half. Players who could keep hold of the ball weren’t on the pitch, and Italy enjoyed over 70 per cent possession (68 per cent for the whole game). Another lesson for the corporation: it’s hard to put the ball in the net, if the other team has the ball most of the time.
Predictably, the Italians eventually equalised, and England managed to hang on by the skin of their teeth long enough to take the game into a penalty shootout. When their defenders got the ball, they were ordered to punt it upfield, Hail Mary style. Those world class players were displaying a style usually seen only in the lower divisions of English football.
Then Southgate tried a trick that, had it worked, would have earned him a peerage, not just the knighthood he’ll probably receive.
He put three substitutes on late in extra time specifically with the penalties in mind. One of them came on some 10 minutes before the end and barely had a touch of the ball. The other two came in the last couple of minutes and only caught sight of the ball from a safe distance.
No wonder all three missed – it’s hard to keep your nerve when you aren’t in the swing of the game. Scoring just two out of five penalties is Sunday pub league, not world class football.
Afterwards Southgate magnanimously allowed it was all his fault. You don’t say, Gareth.
Under the FA’s darling Southgate, England players may yet learn the much-praised art of losing gracefully. Had, say, Venables or Hoddle been in charge last night, they would have walked away with the trophy. But in the process they could have left a certain portion of the FA’s anatomy uncovered. That was out of the question.
I recall the story of the American admiral Ernest King, who was pushed into semi-retirement in the 1930s, mainly for his recalcitrant and insubordinate nature. Yet immediately after Pearl Harbour he was brought back as Chief of Naval Operations. “When the shooting starts,” commented the admiral, “they send out for the mean sons of bitches.”
I wonder if the FA has heard this story.