World Cup qualifying runs this week, and a lot of what's going on involves glorified exhibition play. Continental giants like the Netherlands and Italy are booked for Brazil, as is our great nation; other teams of interest, like Germany, Spain, Portugal, and France are more or less box-checking. Then there's England.
England happen to be in the deepest group in Europe. With 16 points after eight matches, they're in first place, but close out qualifying against Montenegro today and then Poland on October 15. England still have a single-point hold on the top spot, and with it, an automatic tournament berth; sadly for them, it's not looking all that secure.
That's because rival sides Montenegro and Ukraine have favorable matches remaining against, respectively, Moldova, a scrappy side that has managed one win in eight qualifiers, and San Marino, who in the same span boast an unfathomable goal differential of -42. Further, if Poland can find away to win on Friday against Ukraine, the whole group gets really ugly going into the final match day on Tuesday.
(Adding to all this, today's fixture is dangerous for England; Montenegro have a couple of players who are the absolute truth and a perfect away record, and last year, they drew England in qualifying.)
For colonialism reasons, it would be a treat, as always, to see England fail. But really, it doesn't matter much if they make the World Cup or not; there's no way they're going to walk away from Brazil with a trophy, because they're not good enough.
This World Cup cycle will finally, emphatically mark the end of an era for the most clownishly self-important soccer nation of all time. The Football Association's chief executive, Adam Crozier, hyped the turn of the century's crop of talent a "Golden Generation." Some of those players, like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, and Wayne Rooney are still around. They're a thousand years old. Wayne Rooney is somehow 27. He is also a thousand years old.
This Golden Generation has never won anything, and never deserved to. England haven't even almost won a major tournament since coming in third in the European Championships 17 years ago, and haven't been a real factor in a World Cup since 1990. Their only win was in 1966, 47 years ago. Uncle Ray breaks it down:
An insufferable optimist could find some good in missing the Brazil World Cup, or even nearly missing it: It would provide a pretext for blowing up everything, firing everyone, start anew. After all, five years, when Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup, is a long time. But England doesn't do that sort of thing.
Even if they wanted to, this team is stuck, caught between two worlds. They're a team of the half-dead and youngish guys like Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Kyle Walker, and every English Arsenal player. They aren't really green prospects, and they haven't really done shit internationally. None of these players, short of Rooney and left back Leighton Baines, can any longer count themselves among the very best of their contemporaries. What's scarier is that they don't have many options coming through the youth ranks.
England has good young players, like Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw, Wilfried Zaha, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Jack Wilshere. What England don't have are superstars who will be able to outplay the best Spain, Germany, Brazil, and even Belgium have to offer. They're just a big slice of a small rock in the sea that happened to give the world its greatest game some 150 years ago, not at the leading edge of soccer's development or really even close. And that's why it was interesting to hear comments from Wilshere—England's likely future captain—just this week about Manchester United prospect Adnan Januzaj.
Januzaj is an 18-year-old Manchester United winger, and if the last three weeks and change are any indication, he is the shit. The Belgian made his Premier League debut on September 14, and his first start last Saturday. He scored twice, saving his club from a calamitous loss to last-place Sunderland. It turns out that he's rebuffed advances from Belgium's national team, even though the squad has turned overnight into something resembling a world superpower, and he has yet to declare for anyone yet. FIFA rules state that a player can declare for a national team if they've lived there after the age of 18 for five years. Januzaj was born in February, which means that if he stays in England, he'll be eligible just in time for the 2018 World Cup.
Oliver Kay, a soccer writer for The Times in England, asked Wilshere what he thought of England bringing on Januzaj. The young midfielder/possible smoker responded with this:
"No. For me if you are English, you are English and you play for England. The only people who should play for England are English people. If you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play—it doesn’t mean you can play for a country. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years I am not going to play for Spain."
"We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that."
He later tried to walk back his comments on Twitter, but that never works, partly because take-backs never work, and partly because his views are perfectly in line with traditional English jingoism.
There are multiple books, really, to unpack from Wilshere's comments, but let's start with the second paragraph, when he speaks on traits the English possess. Tackling hard. Brave. Tough on the pitch. Hard to beat. Tons and tons of character. What Wilshere is saying is that the English are the manliest of men, lions personified, with two cocks—because they're fucking English.
We know what makes national styles though, and it's not blood, or even national identity. The technique and style the Spanish have become so famous for, for example, is tiki-taka, a short, fluid passing game that has its roots in the Dutch ideal of Total Football, which was introduced 45 years ago. It was brought to Spain by the great Dutchman Johan Cruyff as first a player and then a manager for Barcelona, and their success led to more teams adopting it, first in Spain and then all over the world. (It found its greatest expression, incidentally, in the play of an Argentine.) Spain's technique—their style—isn't especially Spanish. It's the product of globalization and of a generation or two of coaching.
Similarly, all the stuff about the English being masculine and badass and tough to beat (even though they never win anything of consequence) because they're fucking English is a bunch of bullshit. If the English don't play as technical a game as Spain, that's partly because of coaching trees and partly because it's cold and rainy there, and cold, rainy weather isn't conducive to short passing. Past being bullshit, the idea that a certain type of player is born rather than made is ignorant, and ultimately dangerous. (This kind of essentialism lays beneath the entire history of American race relations.) It's also terrible soccer.
Proclaiming that there's an inherently English style that can only be played by truly English Englishmen is basically why English soccer is fucked. They're debating whether Jack Wilshere is any more English than runner Mo Farah (who was born in Somalia and then emigrated to England when he was eight before eventually winning a shit ton of medals for his adopted country) while the rest of the world has already answered that basic question. They're arguing blood vs. passport, and everyone else has moved on.
There are several ways in which players can come to represent different countries from the ones in which they were born. Most countries use and exploit this rule to very best of their abilities. In the last World Cup, for instance, half the German team was made up of players eligible to play for multiple countries. Arsenal's Lukas Podolski, already one of Germany's most-capped players, was born in Poland. So was Miroslav Klose, Germany's all-time leading goalscorer.
Then there are the Dutch, who have pilfered seemingly every non-white player of note from the South American country of Suriname. Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, and Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink were all born nearly 5,000 miles away from the country they were immortalized representing. And isn't there something noble in that? For a man to deny his own country, his own blood, for the privilege of wearing your flag on his chest? Is that not patriotic in its own way? Maybe even more patriotic than representing a country because that's where you happened to be born?
Nations like Germany and Holland and even now America have recognized that. They're widening the base of talent they draw in and incorporating different styles. The Dutch didn't say that only true Dutchmen can play beautiful Dutch soccer; they expanded their idea of what it was to be a Dutch player, and evolved. The significance of Wilshere's comments is that they show how far England is from doing that.
The history behind them, as well as England's incontinence as a whole, was beautifully outlined in David Winner's book, Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Soccer.
The English were once an empire. They excelled in war. In the Victorian Age, they also looked at sport as war, and the idea of England as inherently better than other peoples pervaded the sport they created. But even when the world caught up, the English refused to move on:
This goes to the heart of modern, post-imperial Britain's sense of itself in the world. And it goes to the heart of modern English football too. Perceptions of English football decline... clearly linked to questions of wider decline. But has English football, really declined?... As Britain's Industrial Revolution gave it an economic and military head-start, so England's invention of football (and indeed, most modern sport) gave it a big lead. As other nations took up and got serious about the game, it was just a matter of time before they caught up and overtook us.
England had their Golden Generation, and they were shit. The next crop, handpicked to measure up against teams like Spain, Germany, and Brazil, and more imminently, Montenegro, Ukraine, and Poland, looks worse. It's over. England are going another World Cup cycle without winning, partly because they're a small nation in a cold, wet rock in the sea, and even more so because they're doing nothing about it.
But for the record, we think they'll qualify. After all, there's that English toughness, and if that fails, they're still a point up.
Photo Credit: Associated Press