England is approaching the 45th anniversary of their last, and only, silverware, the 1966 World Cup, and nothing suggests this trend won’t continue for another 45 years. During the last decade, the ‘golden generation’ have persistently failed to deliver even a fraction of their hype, and even though nobody should ever have expected them to win tournaments, their lacklustre and uninterested displays are unforgivable considering the wealth of talent that has been available.
The major point of contention has always been how such an extensive pool of gifted players failed to perform to a standard capable of reaching even a semi-final of an international tournament, whilst simultaneously collecting trophies for their club sides. Of the side which started against Germany in last summer’s 4-1 knockout-round elimination in South Africa, there were a total of 13 Premier League titles and two Champions’ League trophies between the XI, which had all been accumulated over a six-year period prior to the World Cup. Had England’s captain, Rio Ferdinand, not sustained an injury on the cusp of the tournament, another four Premier League titles and a further Champions’ League medal would have been added in to the equation.
Throughout England’s decades of disappointments, Spain were also experiencing a similar level of frustration, as the likes of Fernando Hierro, Luis Enrique and Raul, amongst many others, regularly failed to exhibit their club form on the international stage. In 2006, a team with Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and David Villa won all three of their World Cup group games comfortably before losing to eventual finalists, France, in the knockout-round. Despite this, Spain had demonstrated the precocious quality that would two years later triumph in the 2008 European Championship in Vienna, before building on that success with a World Cup double in 2010.
So how have Spain, having seemingly developed parallel to England in terms of playing quality and subsequent infuriation, been able to alter a national footballing mentality so quickly and with results, whereas England remain in disarray with an arguably less able squad than previous years, a manager that barely anyone has faith in and almost no chance of achieving glory anytime soon? What is it that Spain have done differently, and what influences can England derive from their Iberian counterparts which will assist them in the pursuit of silverware?
Clearly there is not an issue in terms of playing or coaching quality, but a mentality that is embedded in to not just English football in general, but the national side as well. Carles Folguero, who is the director at Barcelona’s La Masia academy, explained that Spain’s World Cup victory, “wasn’t so much the victory of a team, but the victory of an idea.” The England team of the post-Terry Venables era has not had an identifiable personality or characteristic that has remained constant throughout.
This is further rationalized by Pep Segura, who was technical director at La Masia before joining Liverpool’s academy two years ago: “The great thing about La Masia – the concept that I’d like to try and bring to Liverpool – is this. Barcelona’s La Masia represents the club’s policy. It’s a symbol of the club’s philosophy. When your policies keep changing when one day you say black, the next day white, then there will always be a problem in trying to establish a clearly defined concept of player development.” It is not as easy as the FA would have us believe that replacing a foreign coach who ‘doesn’t understand the English game’ with an English coach who ‘does,’ encompasses an idea or an identity that translates on to the pitch.
The fact is, Spain’s triumphant squad developed their technical skills in line with a philosophy they had learned from such a young age. Eight members of the Spanish squad graduated from La Masia and a further seven Barcelona youngsters recently represented the country’s under-19s at tournament level. English football used to have a recognizable culture that is no longer evident, and even though England are yet to return from foreign fields with any trophies, they reached two semi-finals between 1990 and 1996, which at the time indicated an encouraging future which for several reasons was wasted by Gerrard, Lampard and Beckham et al throughout the 2000s.
The most frustrating aspect of it all is that England have not, and will not, produce an assemblage of players anywhere near the standard of the ‘golden generation.’ In my view, it isn’t that Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole haven’t been bothered to ‘respect the Three Lions shirt,’ but that they had no formal instruction on how to play. Italians are renowned for playing defensive, counter-attacking football which is a concept implanted on each and every generation of Italian footballers. They don’t play attractive football that I enjoy watching but their philosophy has proved successful over time and is what won them the 2006 World Cup. Similarly, Germany haven’t been blessed with the greatest collection of players at any one time in the last ten years, but have continued an idea that has existed within the country for decades, even today when their squad consists of a number of foreign immigrants. They didn’t have to win anything for their supporters to be satisfied, but just perform at a consistent level which embraces their national ideology.
Pako Ayestaran, Rafael Benitez’s long-serving assistant at Valencia and Liverpool, alludes to this problem: “Every success story leaves clues behind, but as well as identifying them, you also have to be able to adapt them to your own philosophy and culture. So right now, English football needs to be faithful to its own culture, whilst recognising that there are different ways of playing football.” This quite literally hammers the nail on the head. Spain had no footballing individuality for a number of years, but discovered a personality in conjunction with a particular style of play. Even if they hadn’t supplemented such hard work with their recent trophy haul, the process would have been deemed a success for at least attempting to force a certain philosophy based on the country’s footballing traditions.
This is something England must look to achieve as soon as possible in order to remove the shackles of false promises and on-pitch indifference, because this country had a footballing ideology and character which was acknowledged universally, but was abandoned at the most recent time the playing staff endured a period of transition. The FA must of course shoulder the majority of the blame and should now make sure the emerging generation determine a fixed philosophy which they can approach future tournaments with. This has been the most significant obstruction to English football’s development over the last decade, and its repair will be the most important catalyst for a successful future. Even though the next set of English youngsters don’t possess enough overall quality to win an international tournament, they will play a substantial role in providing succeeding generations a thoroughly English blueprint to learn from and implement.