THE FETISHIZATION OF ENGLISH FOOTBALL

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The problems facing English football have been well documented for almost two decades. But what about the fetishization of the national game and Premier League?

Originally published by These Football Times 17/07/2014.

There was one notable element absent from England’s exit from the World Cup: the tabloid scapegoat. Following exits from past tournaments, or failures to qualify, the popular press, either reflecting or attempting to dictate the popular consensus, have not been shy in anointing a fall-guy or focusing on a moment of misfortune.

David Beckham, in the most infamous case, was the ‘one silly boy’ among ‘ten brave lions’ in 1998. Phil Neville was pilloried for conceding a penalty-kick against Romania which led to England’s exit from Euro 2000. There was Steve McClaren, ‘the wally with the brolly’, and Fabio Capello, the dictatorial, overpaid foreigner. There was Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006, and even as far back as 1970, goalkeeper Peter Bonetti. However, following England’s exit at the World Cup group stage for first time since 1958, there is no serious outcry or, thankfully, digitised fusing of manager Roy Hodgson’s head with a root vegetable.

There are a number of reasons for this seemingly new measured departure. The notable decline of the popular press’s influence, eroded by social media, Luis Suárez hoarding the news cycle the day of England’s final game and the remainder of an engrossing tournament to digest. There has also been a general levelling of expectations to match with the perceived reality of the talent at England’s disposal.

However, in a slightly perverse manner, the lack of an obvious scapegoat is troubling for the Three Lion’s and their future fortunes. It means that there are possibly just too many shortcomings to shift focus on one singular moment, action or person.

English football is seemingly littered with contradictions. The World Cup campaign was deemed a failure, yet defeats to Italy and Uruguay is in line with England’s standard performance at international tournaments. When the Three Lions face a higher ranked team, it overwhelming ends in defeat. Players such as Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw were not first choice England players, but completed moves to Liverpool and Manchester United for £25 million and £34 million respectively upon returning home.

England was also widely considered to have a young squad and optimism remains for Hodgson’s team. However, the average age of the squad was 26, the ninth youngest in the tournament and older than quarter-finalists Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. The English Premier League is proclaimed by many to be the most exciting, and best, league in the world, yet just a third of the players are English.

Football is England’s national sport and crowd attendances at games are among the highest for professional sports leagues in the world. Meanwhile the numbers participating in sport continues to decline. With such polarising elements, it is no wonder that tabloids cannot find a scapegoat. As Paul Scholes, the former Manchester United and England midfielder recently said: “What’s the problem? Where do I start?”

The most immediate issues have been well documented upon England’s elimination from the World Cup. There has been focus on selection decisions, such as playing Wayne Rooney out of position, and the exclusion of Ashley Cole. The focus then extended to the talents of both Andrea Pirlo and Luis Suárez, England’s uncharacteristically porous defence compared to previous tournaments, and Roy Hodgson’s tactics.

Former England player Gary Lineker was among those critical of the England manager’s choices, stating: “The problem with this 4-2-3-1 is that it very quickly becomes a 4-4-2 or at least a 4-4-1-1 and we end up with flat lines and people getting between us.” There is undoubted merit in Lineker’s argument. The 2014 World Cup will be remembered for, among other things, the numerous tactical shifts by coaches, and the return to prominence of three central defenders.

England’s 4-2-3-1 formation, the default setting for the majority of teams at the 2010 World Cup, seems stale in comparison to the tactical tinkering of Netherland’s manager Louis van Gaal, the cohesive structure of Costa Rica or the exhilarating gumption of Chile’s 3-4-1-2.

Rio Ferdinand was also critical of Hodgson. The former England defender said the manager is: “…certainly no maverick, he doesn’t change matches with inspirational substitutions and I see little evidence of a collective buying into a master plan for England, if there even is one.” Whatever about the merits of the rest of Ferdinand’s view, the final five words of the excerpt are particularly telling.

Ferdinand’s admission further conveys that England’s woes do not begin and end with Hodgson. The manager may not have a master plan but apparently neither do the Football Association. Chairman Greg Dyke claimed the country can win the World Cup in 2022 and proposed forging a new league between the Conference and League Two. The proposed league, now seemingly unlikely to happen, was to consist of Premier League ‘B’ teams, acting as a gateway to the first team for young English players starved of action in the top flight.

The semi-final stage of the World Cup had twenty players who compete in the Premier League, just one less than the German Bundesliga. However, none of these players are English, while seventeen of those who ply their trade in the Bundesliga represent Germany. A picture begins to emerge when these factors are taken into account. It is surprising that those who seek scapegoats have not fixed their gaze on the Premier League.

That said, scapegoating or media witch-hunts are not to be welcomed as they are neither constructive nor attractive. Yet the lack of serious, sustained conjecture regarding the seemingly negative effect the league is having on the development of English players is perhaps evidence of which is of greater importance to many fans and elements of the media.

Paul Scholes does however pin a degree of blame for England’s failings on the Premier League, saying the division “is a cash cow and it’s hurting our national game”. Scholes also believes that it is the high number of foreign players within the league that is proving damaging to England’s international hopes. “We should limit the amount of foreign players allowed in each Premier League squad. Clubs will then only sign the best, and English talent gets priority for development.”

Scholes is not the first to propose a limit on foreign players and he won’t be the last. However, the English top flight would have been unquestionably weaker without the contributions of players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez. Is the problem that less distinguished foreign players hamper young English development? Or are there simply not enough good home-grown players?

This is seemingly something of a chicken and egg scenario, as there merit for both sides of the argument. However, it is an ultimately futile question, as a cap on foreign players will not happen and it is not in the league’s interests to introduce any measures to potentially alter their product. The Premier League may not be the cause of all the Three Lions’ problems, yet it is seemingly not the solution either.

The competition is undoubtedly exciting, full of compelling narratives featuring some of the world’s best players. However, it could be argued that the Premier League is not an English league, but rather a league based in England. It features elements synonymous with English football, such as open attacking games, packed stadiums and clubs steeped in tradition and history.

It is also a free market capitalist enterprise and, as a result, the Premier League operates primarily in pursuit of profit for its stakeholders. A competitive England team is simply not a concern for the league’s powerbrokers. That does not mean these same people do not wish the Three Lions to be successful, rather that they would not see it as their obligation. The league is broadcast worldwide and as such its participants reflect its audience and the freedom of labour and capital that is at the heart of free-market capitalism.

German philosopher Karl Marx’s theory of fetishism seems apt in relation to the Premier League and the national team. Marx wrote that objects or systems, such as commodities or money or the open market system, are created by people but eventually come to hold power over them. At this stage the needs of the fetishized system or object must be preserved over all concerns.

So if one was to argue that some of the billions sloshing around the coffers of the Premier League clubs could be used to more effectively foster young English players’ development, they would be missing the point. It is not about how much money these clubs have or how willing they are for English national team to be successful.

The more money that flows into Premier League clubs, the more it will be used to preserve the current system; a system where a squad player from a national team that crashes out of the World Cup in the first round is valued at £25 million. A system where domestic players represent 32% of top flight participants, where fans eagerly expect the next overseas star to drive their team to glory and agent fees total almost £100 million per year.

David Goldblatt, author and academic, recently noted: “Like the wider economy, English football will continue to excel at its peak as a globally orientated commercial venture, but for the world of the lower leagues and youth and grassroots football, out of which a successful national football culture is built, there is more penury to come.”

England was failing on the international stage long before the Premier League, billion pound broadcasting deals and the influx of foreign players. The league alone is not to blame for England’s early World Cup exit and will not be the sole cause of any future heartbreak. However, its needs now seemingly surpass all other concerns.

Scholes does not seem optimistic for the future of the English national team. Speaking about the FA Chairman’s claims that the Three Lions can win the World Cup in 2022, he said: “From what I’ve seen at this World Cup, we’ll be lucky to qualify. I fear England are going the way of the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Scotland.”

Wales last qualified for an international tournament in 1958 and Northern Ireland the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Scotland, once regular participants on the international stage, last featured in 1998, while the Republic of Ireland, at Euro 2012, had a jilting experience. At the 2002 World Cup, Ireland recovered from the loss of their captain Roy Keane, outplayed Germany in a 1-1 group game before losing to Spain on penalties in the second round.

Ten years later, within the space of three months, Ireland lost 4-0 and 1-6 to Spain and Germany respectively. In the preceding decade the two European footballing superpowers had undoubtedly improved, yet Ireland had equally regressed. Irish football fans, the majority of whom support English teams, still enjoy the World Cup. The presence of so many recognisable Premier League players perhaps offers a degree of solace despite the national team’s absence from international tournaments. In ten years’ time will such a scenario appease English fans?

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