Can England Win the Next World Cup?

March 18th 1998- Fifa have released their latest set of World rankings, a complex ratings system which produces a rank for each of the governing body’s 192 affiliated nations. At first glance, the list is hardly surprising; perennial top seeds Brazil occupy their usual position, with Germany, Argentina and Holland all appearing in the top ten. Indeed the biggest shock to a modern fan is probably that England were once considered in the world’s top five. At closer inspection, it appears that something has gone wrong with Fifa’s system, with Spain appearing at number twenty-five, below the likes of Japan, Columbia and Tunisia. Fast forward twelve years and the Spanish are current World Champions, boasting a seemingly invincible team of unrivaled flair and creativity, with a pool of talent so deep that Cesc Fabregas and David Silva sit on the bench. A little further research reveals that ten years ago, Spain were in a state of crisis not dissimilar to the one engulfing English football at present. How then, you may ask, did they transform themselves into World Champions, and, more pressingly, why can’t England do the same?

It is clear that the problems faced by English football run much deeper than egotistical players and incompetent management; the real issue is the fact that the best young English players simply do not get the exposure to top flight football as early as is necessary for their development. There are countless examples of promising young players, often already labeled as ‘England’s next Great Hope,’ who simply sit on the bench week-in, week-out. Kieran Gibbs, England’s future first choice left-back, will not displace Gael Clichy from Arsenal’s lineup any time soon. Jack Wilshere, arguably the most talented of the new generation, is destined to always live in Cesc Fabregas’ shadow. Chris Smalling, surely the long term replacement for Rio Ferdinand, has given up first team football at Fulham to watch Ferdinand himself from the bench at Old Trafford. The list of youngsters who are not being given the game-time needed to progress is endless. In contrast, when Barcelona produced the talented Pedro, he went straight into the first team, forcing Thierry Henry out of the club before starring for Spain at the World Cup this summer. It doesn’t take a genius to work out where England are going wrong.

Going back to the Spanish footballing revolution, the current Barcelona squad says a lot about the progressions that have been made. Of their current first team squad of nineteen, ten are products of the youth academy, whilst eight are full Spanish internationals. So how did Spanish football achieve such a dramatic turnaround? The man they have to thank is, surprisingly, Johan Cruyff. As manager of Barcelona, Cruyff was something of a visionary. He strictly adhered to the Dutch philosophy of ‘Total Football’, and introduced a playing style which came to be known as ‘tiki-taka.’ Defined by short passing, movement, and the utilization of the channels, ‘tiki-taka’ was drilled into every player from youth level up at Barcelona, and it was not long before this tactic was imitated across the Spanish league, and throughout all levels of the national team. It is widely recognised that our current World and European champions have been educated in this philosophy. It is this kind of complete overhaul of grassroots football, with youngsters being taught the value of technique and control, rather than our traditional long-ball tactic, that the English game is crying out for.

Obviously, a lack of decent education at grassroots level means less and less English players will break into the first team of a Premier League club, as the influx of foreign stars continues. At the beginning of the 2009-10 season, of the 595 players registered to play in the Premier League, only 248 were English. Remove the likes of Paul Scholes and Emile Heskey, who have retired from international duty, and the national pool is reduced further still. Compare this to the inaugural season of the Premier League, when a paltry twelve players from outside the British Isles were registered. Other statistics speak for themselves: the last English Golden Boot winner was Kevin Phillips in the 1999-00 season and in the past ten seasons, the Footballer of the Year award has gone to an Englishman three times, and a Frenchman four times. One cannot see an end to this foreign dominance which grips the Premier League at present, if anything it seems probable that the English to Foreign player ration will become even more troubling. The nonsensical real-life game of Fantasy Football which is currently being played by Manchester City’s Arab billionaires will only make the situation worse, as will Roman Abramovich’s inevitable attempts to keep pace. Meanwhile the likes of Martin O’Neill, a manager with the rare and admirable policy of signing promising English players during his tenure at Aston Villa, are cast aside as success-driven billionaire owners chase immediate success.

Of course we must now also ask ourselves what will become of England’s greatest hope, the enigma that is Wayne Rooney. For many years regarded as the most important player in the national set up, and a certainty to captain England’s bid for glory in 2014, Rooney has enjoyed season after season of success with Manchester United. Despite all of England’s problems, they had a star player who was the benchmark of consistency, a player whom we could turn to for a moment of magic to escape difficult situations. At least that was how it was supposed to be. A disastrous World Cup, a few niggling injuries and some rather disturbing headlines later, and Rooney appears to be heading down a Gascoigne-esque path of destruction. He is currently seeking to engineer a move away from Old Trafford, either to Real Madrid and a league entirely unsuited to his style, or to Manchester City, and eternal criticism from the majority of English fans for his sheer lack of morals. Either way, England’s cause for 2012 or 2014 is hardly going to be helped by our star player becoming a figure of ridicule or hatred.

So, the situation appears depressing for fans of our national team. In answer to the question that has been posed; no, England cannot win the next World Cup. To expect the complete overhaul of the English style of play which is required to reach the next level to occur in the next four years is ridiculous. However, there remains some faint hope. If England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup is successful, it will be the first time that our nation has hosted the event since 1966. It is also entirely plausible that the necessary changes to the development of English footballers could be in place within the next eight years. It seems naïve to hope that something will be done to turn England’s situation around, and even more so to pray for the emergence of an English Messi in the next few years. Nevertheless, after 52 painful years, could football finally be coming home?

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