Like everyone in Britain it seems, I was glued to the TV on Saturday night as Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, and Greg Rutherford made it a golden evening for Team GB. I was particularly interested in Jess Ennis’ performance, as I had seen a really interesting presentation from her coach, Toni Minichiello at the FA Coaches Conference at Wembley Stadium last December. I’ve found while developing as a coach, that the viewpoint or thoughts of coaches from all areas of sport provide great interest and learnings that can help myself in the way I coach footballers or manage football teams. However, while we are all toasting our athletics heroes, down the road in Cardiff, the GB Men’s Football team exited the Olympic tournament on penalties, the exit being surprising, if not the manner in which they lost.
In an era where bad news can be forgotten on a day of good news, the defeat was somewhat overlooked. Players were spared the usual barrage of criticism when representing their country (despite the odd remark on Twitter), as everyone was too busy delighting in other successes. Some of the comments made however, suggested that the likes of Ennis and Farah cared far more about winning a gold medal than the over paid, prima donnas in the GB colours at the Millenium Stadium. It’s certainly not the first time that the accusation has been aimed at one of our national football teams. So I thought it was worth having a look at the possible reasons why.
Let’s state the obvious first of all. For participants of track and field events, the Olympics is the pinnacle of their career. An Olympic gold beats everything else hands down. In football, it is questionable in the modern day as to what a player would perceive to be greater, a winners medal from the World Cup, or a winner medal from the Champions League. So an Olympic gold medal is unlikely to come any higher in their list of priorities. It is perhaps most worrying though, Olympics aside, that a winners medal from a club tournament would potentially be rated higher than being part of your country being crowned the world’s best. And I do think there will be exceptions to this. David Beckham would be one, Lionel Messi another. However the number, particularly from these shores, that seem utterly indifferent to even playing football for their country, let alone winning any trophies, suggests it’s not their top priority. Retirement from international football used to be once players felt they were past their best. Not any more.
Why is this the case? Well, I think you firstly have to go back to the formation of the Premier League in the early 1990s. Part of the theory behind the new set up was to improve the national team, fresh from an improved showing in Italia 90. With the exception of Euro 96, there hasn’t been much of an improvement, and indeed for two of the tournaments since then (the World Cup in 1994, and the Euros in 2008), England failed to even qualify. For me, there are a couple of reasons why the Premier League’s promise of improving the national team is something of a folly. Firstly, they have gained so much power in English football, and this has often come at the expense of the FA. The English game has become more and more about the 20 teams in the Premier League, and the rest is largely forgotten. If the Premier League disagrees with something, they usually get their own way. How many times have we seen, in particular, the Football League forced into a corner by their more powerful counterparts? The Premier League’s power has only been increased by the large amount of money flowing into their coffers. Everyone else has had to sit around with begging bowls hoping that a bit of the kitty comes their way. After the latest blockbuster Sky deal was agreed, there was talk of maybe some more money going into other areas of the game. Perhaps grass roots, perhaps the women’s game? Not a bit of it. You can bet your life that player’s agents will be using this as a point of negotiation for their client’s next contract. You want the services of my player, you need to pay for it, and we know you’ve got the money to give us what we demand.
So the Premier League has become English football’s focal point. Just being part of it is massively important for the clubs involved, and for some, particularly managers, their livelihoods depend on it. Therefore you can understand why other games, such as international friendlies, are seen as meaningless irritations. Players are absent from the club’s training sessions affecting preparation, and could well come back with a niggling injury. Such an outcome could mean the difference between victory or defeat in the next game, and a manager staying in a job. Remember Arsene Wenger’s comments about Jack Wilshere’s participation in England games last summer, conveniently overlooking how many Arsenal games he had played that season. For an international manager however it could hardly be more different. How can the England boss decide on his best players and strategy with only competitive games, or friendly matches with half the players missing? These games are therefore vital in preparation. With the current set up though, players will drop out of the squad for an injury which will not be serious enough to keep them out of the next league game.
So what about the players themselves? We’ve already seen that the passion of playing for their country is somewhat varied. But can the blame be levelled at them? Ultimately, they are in control of their own careers, so there is little doubt they have the final call on playing for their country. However, they also have families to look after, and bills to pay. With this in mind, it would be daft to bite the hands that feed them. The vast amounts of money that come in their weekly pay packet come from the club that employs them, so it would be unwise for them to go against said club’s wishes. Therefore the Premier League and Champions League become their main focus with everything else secondary. In the same position, I dare say plenty would follow the same lead.
Going back to the Olympics example, Gareth Bale has been widely criticised, after dropping out of the squad with an injury, but then while the tournament was going on, playing several games for Spurs on their preseason tour of the USA. Friendly games are of somewhat different intensity to a tournament with matches every few days of course, but there was a definite case of priorities. Bale is a key player for Andre Villas Boas’ side, so you can see the reluctance for Spurs to risk losing him for a longer period.
I think a lot of football followers in this country would like to see the national side do well, even those who profess to care little for the fortunes of Team England or in the recent example, Team GB, seem to suggest this is more to do with player attitude than not wanting their country to succeed. So what solutions are there? Perhaps a clue would be to look at sports where there has been recent examples of improvement in the fortunes of the international team, Rugby Union and Cricket. An interesting read is Clive Woodward’s excellent autobiography Winning (which I will do a full review of at some point). He outlined the issues of not having enough time with his squad and the battles with the leading Rugby clubs over access to their players. The problem was never solved while he was in charge, but he did manage to get greater access in the lead up to the victorious World Cup of 2003. There is little doubt that the improvements in English cricket fortunes are in some way down to the central contracting of their key players. What chance of this happening in football? With the present set up, no chance at all. The Premier League will block anything that is not in their interest. And here is where the power in the game is a problem. The most powerful organisation in English football is unfortunately the Premier League. And until that changes, the national team will not have a chance, or at least, severely reduce its chances of being successful, of having the best talent, in the best condition, and with the best preparation. Obviously other factors will play a part, the proper development of players, the improvement of technique etc… but to give the national side the greatest opportunity, all things need to be in their favour. Get the players and clubs seeing international football as the pinnacle of the game, and there might just be a chance for Team England to be the pride of the nation.