No, they were not famous soccer players. They were the writers, lyricist and most popular singer of the 1940 song “There’ll Always Be an England.”
In international soccer, there will always be an England, but it simply will not be a global power in what is no longer England’s game, but the world’s game.
Since crashing at home against Croatia and failing to qualify for next summer’s European Championships, England has been plunged into despair. Steve McClaren lost his job as the coach of the national team; officials of the English Football Association have begun a global search for a new gaffer, as the Brits call the major domo on the bench; and the powers that be launched a gut-wrenching evaluation of what has gone wrong in the birthplace of the game.
What has gone wrong? It’s the players, stupid. For all the articles written and all the words spoken about coaches from Alf Ramsey to Sven Goran Eriksson, the fact is the coach does not play in the games. England, compared to Brazil, Italy, Argentina, even Croatia, lacks skilled and creative players.
Where else in the world could a 30-something David Beckham be considered for national team duty? Why, in merry olde England, where crosses from the flanks are still seen as the most direct route to scoring a goal. Where else are skillful dribblers and nippy little magicians ridiculed as ball hogs? Where else is the term “work rate” really just a substitute for pointless running? And where in European soccer are there fewer Brazilians playing in the what the English like to call the best league in the world?
In my mind, there was nothing quite as absurd as when the Peruvian Nolberto Solano, playing for Newcastle, scored a scintillating goal using the outside of his right foot to tuck a shot from 18 yards inside the far post. A British television commentator said: “A great goal, but of course he should have used his left foot.” Huh? What? Are you kidding me?
According to a study by the Center for Economic and Business Research, England’s failure to qualify will cost about $2 billion in lost revenue from TV advertising, travel expenditures and money lost by betting companies (but saved by bettors) — not to mention a loss of prestige that has an incalculable value.
On this side of the Atlantic, the blind devotion to English soccer marches on unabated.
When will Americans realize that there is little today to emulate in the English game? When will Americans realize that a British accent is no guarantee a coach knows what he’s doing? When will we stop importing British players to M.L.S.?
The Fox Soccer Channel, an otherwise invaluable resource for live Premier League, Serie A and other leagues from around the world (not to mention Major League Soccer matches) compounds this problem. FSC, part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, seems forever locked in an embrace of the Union Jack, obviously because Murdoch’s Sky Sports has the domestic rights to E.P.L. games.
So what do we get over here? Endless highlights of the English game, replete with announcers with English or Scottish accents, speaking in what they claim are soccer terms — pitch, kit, football, gaffer, brace, tapping up — but are really creeping Britishism.
For all its value, which is not to be underestimated or denigrated, FSC should be more, much more, to the game in North America. It is oh-so-easy to push a couple of buttons and dump highlights on viewers, that’s fine. Why can’t FSC ween itself from all things England and do a better job covering the sport in the United States?
For example, on the night after last week’s M.L.S. Cup, FSC’s nightly report led with more than 20 minutes of recap of Euro 2008 games — from two days earlier — and then teased the games two days hence before they got to a cursory recap of the domestic championship.
Wouldn’t a “60 Minutes” type show focusing on soccer in the United States (and Canada too, since the nightly highlight show emanates from Winnipeg, Manitoba) be a welcome addition? Come on, stick a crowbar in your pocket, spend some money and do a bit more, something original, something non-English.
The on-air personalities at FSC were as crestfallen over England’s elimination as the thousands of fans who trudged home from Wembley last Wednesday after the Croatia game. But FSC’s viewership is hardly composed exclusively of expatriates.
England most certainly gave the game to the world. But the game and the world have changed and England is not the power it once was. Of course, we have a language in common, but the lesson for the game in the United States, which has begun to emerge in exciting ways, is that we need to look beyond England before being seduced by those charming accents.