Now that the international break is over, for another month at least, football fans can go back to enjoying the domestic game. While the current league season is in its infancy, the World Cup qualifying campaign is nearing its conclusion with England the only British team with anything to play for, meaning that many British football fans would have breathed a collective sigh of relief that yet another painful week of international football was finally over and that they could look forward to following their clubs once again.
But before our minds revert back to the domestic side of the game, perhaps it is worth reflecting on how the home nations fared in last week’s fixtures, and trying to begin to understand why disappointment and embarrassment have become so commonplace amongst British fans.
After overcoming a vastly inferior Moldovan team at home in a routine victory, England laboured to a goalless away draw against Ukraine; Wales produced two insipid displays against Macedonia (a team 75th in the FIFA world rankings) and Serbia, deservedly losing both; in the same group, Scotland were outclassed at home against Belgium and needed a late moment of brilliance from Shaun Maloney to overcome Macedonia; while Northern Ireland shipped four at home against Portugal before slipping to an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Luxembourg, a country with a population of half a million and 126th in the world rankings, 40 places below them.
Not the greatest of weeks for the home nations, then; but the fact is that there is a sense of crushing inevitability, an almost tedious predictability about their constant shortcomings on the international stage. While England do qualify for most major tournaments, there is no denying that they have beaten Spain – historical underachievers but whose side is now in the middle of a golden age – to the title of undisputed flops of world football (47 years of hurt and counting). As for the other three British teams, Scotland haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1998, Northern Ireland since 1986, whilst Welsh fans need no reminding that the last time their national team competed in a World Cup was way back in 1958, where Pele’s first World Cup goal was enough to knock them out at the quarter-final stage.
Despite the fact that England boasts a significantly larger population than the other three home nations, the argument that the failure of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to qualify for major tournaments on a semi-regular basis is expected due to their population size in comparison to England quite simply does not hold water. In the UK as a whole, football is not only the national sport; it is a national obsession. The English Premier League is the richest and one of the most well-supported leagues in the world and contains two Welsh clubs in Cardiff and Swansea, while even Glasgow Celtic attract crowds of more than 45,000 in spite of the absence of fierce rivals Rangers in the significantly less lucrative Scottish Premier League. The UK’s football infrastructure is one of the most developed in world sport, as pointed out in England’s failed bid to host the 2018 World Cup, while the immense popularity of football in the UK is such that it has even pervaded aspects of music and fashion culture. All this has enabled the smaller home nations to produce an impressive amount of world-class footballers – Best, Dalglish, Giggs to name but a few – in spite of their modest populations. Indeed, the world’s most expensive footballer is a Welshman.
So why is it that the home nations are consistently underachieving? We can speculate on a number of different causes, however a strong case can be made that it is the traditional footballing philosophy deep-rooted in the British game that is having the most negative effect on its national sides. Whereas a style of play centred around physicality, no-nonsense defending and long balls dominates the British game, the Spanish (and more recently German) model of developing technically gifted footballers capable of playing a short passing game and dominating their opponents, regardless of their physical stature, has exposed the British model as outdated and, crucially, inferior.
This is not a question of which style is most pleasing to the eye; with Spain witnessing the greatest success in their national team’s history in recent years and Germany a regular fixture in the semi finals and finals of major tournaments, there is no doubt that they are doing something right. When the English FA mustered the courage to adopt a continental approach by appointing the national side’s first foreign manager, the Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson, England proceeded to reach the quarter-finals of three successive major tournaments. His successor, Englishman Steve McClaren, failed to even qualify for the finals of the European Championships in 2008. More recently, Lars Lagerbäck , another Swedish manager, overlooked for the Wales manager post in 2012, is now in charge of an Iceland side in a strong position to qualify for their first ever major tournament. Wales, on the other hand, languish at the bottom of their qualifying group under the stewardship of Welshman Chris Coleman, while on the same night that the senior side lost to Macedonia, the Wales under-21 side suffered a humiliating defeat to San Marino, a country with a smaller population than Wrexham and whose senior side is ranked 207th in the world. Incidentally, the population of Iceland is less than 400,000.
The English FA have finally recognised that the British model is perhaps an old-fashioned one and have taken the first few steps to adopting a more modern approach, most notably with the opening of St George’s Park, a state-of-the-art National Football Centre which, in time, should see England producing technically gifted footballers to rival Spain and Germany. And while the respective football associations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may not have the financial means to produce such enviable national football centres of their own, by at least abandoning the outdated notion that ‘British is best’ when the best can more often than not be found abroad, we may finally see the home nations shedding their collective tag of hapless underachievers and starting fulfilling their potential on the international stage.