THE inquisition as to why England disappointed at the World Cup is likely to be long and bloody. For me the question should not so much be why they underperformed, as why people are so surprised by the team’s underperformance. After all, since England’s one major tournament success in 1966, the country has failed to make it past the semifinal stage.
The national team’s problem is indicative of a general malaise in English society. England is a country fixated on the cult of the celebrity, especially football celebrities. The John Terry saga dominated the tabloid media for weeks as a nation debated whether a man should be removed from the captaincy for sleeping with a former teammate’s ex-girlfriend.
This obsession with the individual is counter-productive to success in a team sport. It might help to sell papers, but it doesn’t help win major tournaments.
Manchester United’s phenomenal domestic success over the past two decades has been as much due to the club’s never-say-die team ethos as to the silky skills of Ronaldo, Beckham and Rooney.
At least for one former England player the national team’s plight is due to a lack of S-factor in the team. Socialism that is, not sex.
“Football is a socialist sport,” says John Barnes in an interview with Mihir Bose in London’s Evening Standard, drawing comparisons between England and Argentina. “For 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.”
Barnes whose greatest playing success came as part of the Liverpool collective of the 80s, claims that all successful teams “embrace the socialist ideology”. He extols Messi as a player who, despite being a superstar, is one who respects the virtues of his own teammates.
A quick analysis of the more fancied teams that have fallen by the wayside in this year’s World Cup supports Barnes’ analysis. Putting Italy’s ageing warriors to one side, France was a team divided, England a lose-knit coalition of superstars and Portugal a unit that failed to harness the skills of its one truly outstanding individual, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Winning teams create the right environment for individuals to express themselves for the general good. What makes Sir Alex Fergusson and Jose Mourinho stand out as coaches is precisely their ability to do this.
As the World Cup nears its final stage, the teams that have managed to integrate individual talent into a collective ethos – Spain, Germany, the Netherlands – are coming to the fore.
Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly once said: “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”
Football may no longer be a socialist, working-class game, but it is still a team sport. Those who lose sight of this do so at their own peril.
Please email your comments to our World Cup columnist Mark Jackson at [email protected]