The "Traditional" England XI

As is routine following an England team's tournament exit, a lot has been written and said about the U21's tactics and general style of play since their elimination on Sunday. Not for the first time, it seems that a fair amount of supporters were unimpressed with England's attempts at "the passing game". However, instead of bemoaning the players' lack of technical quality or calling for better coaching at grass roots levels, a rather loud minority indicated that their dismay on this occasion was because England had strayed too far from their roots; that the ol' kick-and-rush, for all its flaws, at least showed respect for national tradition.

With that in mind, I've put together a new setup for the senior team which recalls those good old days: no-nonsense, hard as nails centre-backs with real passion; no-nonsense, hard-as-nails full-backs with real passion; no-nonsense, hard-as-nails midfielders with... you get the drift.

Essentially, there's a keeper that can kick the ball into the opponents' box from his, eight hatchet men and two wingers. This way, the next time England get eliminated from a tournament their fans can say that they at least went out their way: with a pass completion rate below 50%, and with Johnny Foreigner bloodied and bruised, ruing the day he stepped onto the same pitch as England's brave boys.

The starting eleven:

GK - Paul Robinson
DR - Andy Wilkinson
DL - Paul Robinson
DC - Ryan Shawcross
DC - Phil Jagielka
MR - Jermaine Pennant
ML - Matthew Etherington
MC - Kevin Nolan (as the XI's most inspirational player, he gets the armband)
MC - Joey Barton
ST - Kevin Davies
ST - Andy Carroll

Joe Hart, Zat Knight, Leighton Baines, Karl Henry, Dean Whitehead, Matt Jarvis, Jermain Defoe.

Sam Allardyce.

Baddiel and Skinner.

Doesn't that fill you with pride? I'm bursting with patriotism just thinking about it. ...or perhaps "the passing game" wasn't so bad after all.

A Tribute to Edwin van der Sar

Just got home from training

Every day so draining

Got to sit down, take a rest from the sport

Imagination sets in

Purty soon I'm singin'

Doo, doo, doo, sortin’ out my back four

Awful shot from Gibson

Dimi’s reading Ibsen

Wes Brown’s making daisy chains and Nani’s on the floor

Taking a short throw-in

Injures Michael Owen

Doo, doo, doo, sortin’ out my back four

Giggs is playing left-back

And we’re losing to West Ham

Upson looks exactly like a spoon

Doo doo doo

Win the league tomorrow

Today I have no sorrows

Doo, doo, doo, sortin’ out my back four

Seven mil for Bébé

And Evans can’t defend

Can’t we pick a side based on current form?

Doo doo doo

Kuszczak out of position

I’ve got no competition

Doo, doo, doo, sortin’ out my back four

Xavi’s pass to Busquets

Ando’s eating biscuits

Look at all the crowds of people feeling so forlorn

Bother me tomorrow

Today I'll buy no sorrows




Sortin’ out




The Day They Knocked Down The Palais

The film Frost/Nixon captures brilliantly the moment of Nixon’s almost self-inflicted condemnation. The “trial he never had” was made more extraordinary by the uniquely televisual way in which it unravelled. The momentary widening of David Frost’s eyes, the near-imperceptible knitting of his brow, Nixon’s uncomfortable shifting in his seat: it was a moment in which politics and television became inextricable.

It’s difficult to say when football’s relationship with television came of age in a similar way (a pretty sturdy bet might be the 1994 World Cup, a tournament bookended by hyper-televisual penalty misses), but it’s easy to picture how the international football landscape looked prior to that always well-defined process of globalisation.

Clearly it was the sort of bleak, brooding, uncharted affair usually reserved for dinosaur movies and Wigan Athletic home games. In 1966, Johan Cruyff shook off his shroud of mist to administer a 5-1 thumping of Shankly’s Liverpool. Pelé, of course, lurched from the gloom only every four years. Without the proliferation of televised football, the build-up to every international or continental tournament would carry with it an extra dimension of exotic anticipation.

Then the self-contained cultures of football started to be undercut by concepts like branding, marketability and Oleg Salenko. The game is now a global cultural mode, and it’s impossible to imagine a modern international tournament replicating that sparkle of the unknown.

Or perhaps it isn’t.

Seventeen years after the 1994 World Cup, the United States is hosting another tournament. The CONCACAF Gold Cup is a regional competition for the national teams of North and Central America and the Caribbean, and it’s made me think again about the ubiquity of global football.

Take Cuba, for instance. Every member of the Cuban national team plays his club football within the domestic league, about which relatively little is known (or, at least, about which I know relatively little). There was a degree of intrigue around the team that took the field in Dallas for the tournament opener. My northern European eyes were seduced by their technical dexterity, their slick mastery of the central third of the pitch.

That mastery, as it turned out, came at the expense of any influence in the other areas of the field. Cuba lost 5-0 but I, a child of the late eighties, was already hooked on the anachronistic frisson of watching a team from the ether. It’s the same story with El Salvador: Rodolfo Zelaya’s free-kick golazo against Costa Rica was more thrilling than if David Beckham or Lionel Messi had done the same, not because it was better but because I had no idea who he was.

And Canada! What a spectacle. I already knew the names of the Canadian players, indeed had watched most of them play for their clubs. But I’d never seen the national team before, and it seemed far more exotic than a side featuring a man named Terry Dunfield has any right to be. It felt like I might have been watching Mexico ’86. By the time Canada brought on Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault of the retro-tastic Preuβen Münster, I was already smitten with the Gold Cup.

With all the qualifiers and caveats that such a statement entails, I don’t lament the advent of the television and information age. I love nothing more than watching and learning about football wherever it’s played, and that’s easier now than ever before. But, as someone whose experience of football lies exclusively within the shiny and marketed, the Scudamored and Blatterized, stumbling across this piece of low-key romanticism is a rare treat. So please, for the sake of Cruyff and Pelé and a biannual few weeks of old style wide-eyed incredulity, never tell me who takes free-kicks for El Salvador.

I'm In Love But I'm Lazy

The US national team is part of that élite group referred to in England by their demonym rather than by the name of the country. At the last World Cup, for instance, England were shut out by Algeria after drawing against the Americans. They beat Slovenia but they lost to the Germans. It could be regarded as something of a badge of honour, like being criticised by the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Last summer, an English football website published a link to footage of American fans celebrating Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria. Readers were advised to ignore the “obnoxious” chanting of “USA! USA! USA!”

Chanting the team’s name following a goal – a historic goal, in this case – is not unusual, and it’s curious that it should be considered obnoxious when Americans are doing it. Clearly that’s in part an extension of a tedious stereotype, that of the brash, overweight and stupid American. Stereotypes like that make me gnash my poorly-maintained teeth and spit out my tea with rage.

The contempt for those fans is only part of a wider distaste for the US game. Major League Soccer is seen as a retirement league. Perhaps until Clint Dempsey’s success at Fulham, US players were good despite their origin, not because of it. There’s very little discussion in England of the American style of play, or the types of player that the country produces.

Why is that? There must be more to it than lazy national stereotyping.

Immediately, the word itself springs to mind. Soccer. It’s become the symbol of America’s perceived failure to understand the sport. But the word “soccer” - and, in any case, it's of English origin - isn’t the issue here, it’s just a punchline. It’s the front of the hotel.

Is it the NASL’s fault? Those dreamlike years of Pelé and Beckenbauer sauntering in Glorious Technicolor between incongruous gridiron markings? Those were dizzyingly glamorous times for an English audience to whom the likes of Cruyff and Pelé were semi-mythical figures, looming out of the mist only every few years to win a World Cup or knock Everton out of Europe.

The seeds the NASL sowed, though, have sprouted into something pernicious and lingering: a perception that US soccer is gleamingly insincere and fundamentally superficial. Altogether less real.

Towering over the whole issue is the idea that the United States is not a football country. Obviously soccer is far from the most popular sport; rather it occupies an incrementally-growing niche. Football isn’t the most-watched sport in Ireland either, but to denigrate Irish fans of the game would rightly be seen as absurd and unfair. Other Non-Football Countries might include Japan, or the hosts of the last World Cup.

Included in the Not A Football Country package is the perceived lack of history, which is a feature of English attitudes toward America in general. It’s a misreading – America has a long history of involvement in the game, particularly in places like Seattle and Portland. Philadelphia had a hardcore of fans before the city even got a team. Admittedly the game has never been as explicitly wrapped up in national identity as it is in Europe, but the US has its rivalries and heroes, its narratives and triumphs and tragedies.

Of course there’s also an enormous amount of possessiveness tied up in this. We invented football. Not codified, not exported – invented. The game belongs to the English, and Wembley is its home. The English are very uncomfortable with the idea that football has become bigger than them, that it doesn’t need them anymore. It only takes a quick glance at FIFA to see it for yourself.

There’s a protectiveness that goes hand-in-hand with that. What with America’s hegemony in nearly every other sphere – politics, economics, popular culture – football is pretty much the only thing England has left. All the while is the uncomfortable thought that if America, with the size of its population and economy, started taking football seriously it’d be a powerhouse of the world game. As a Mexican fan said in Simon Kuper’s Football Against The Enemy: “When the Americans [there it is again] like something, they take it over.”

It all adds up to resentment, and that manifests itself through the familiar prism of snark and disdain. Americans in general, and soccer fans in particular, are fair game in England, which is tremendously unjust.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, while the typical English person certainly knows more about the game than the average American, the average American soccer fan is considerably better informed than their English equivalent. Ask a non-football fan in each country to name every footballer they could think of, and the Brit would come out on top. Ask a football fan in each country to list the teams in Serie A, though, and the results would be rather different.

That’s nothing to do with the intelligence of either party, but the fact that every British newspaper is stuffed full of football news from on and off the field. The evening news on a Saturday will always tell you whether Manchester United won or lost. In the United States the coverage is there, but only if you look for it. It’s much more difficult to be a casual fan in the US, because you have to know which bar shows the Bundesliga instead of the NFL. For precisely that reason, the US soccer blogging landscape is sprawling and fearsomely knowledgeable. The fanbase in America is smaller but more committed, while the British fanbase is enormous but with a far lower proportion of diehards and fanatics.

Is there any chance of the perception changing? Not anytime soon, it seems. Success on the international stage certainly doesn’t change much: the US national team has taken part in more World Cups than many “football countries”, for instance Paraguay. It got as far as England in the 2010 tournament, indeed came a great deal closer to reaching the quarter-finals. But it's difficult to see a successful US team being met with anything other than resentment. Those Americans again with their insistence on being good at things.

What might have more of an impact is the slow growth of MLS. The league’s commissioner Don Garber is forever talking about growing the sport, about expanding to new markets and producing better home-grown players. And gradually the league is becoming less reliant on fading overseas superstars. Lothar Matthäus was almost forty when he went to MLS in 2000, whereas David Beckham and Thierry Henry were both thirty-one. Past their best, sure, but neither of them washed-up has-beens. Real Salt Lake notably won the 2009 title without any Designated Players (those players, like Beckham, for whom a club is permitted to break the salary cap).

It’s nothing new to say that English attitudes to football are held back by a pervasive sense of its own history. But it’s worth considering that almost every country has a football history too, however important it might be to their national sense of self. As Tim Vickery always says, football is a universal language that we speak with different accents. And it seems like what we have here is a failure to communicate.

Arnesen signs Cobham

The following story about Frank Arnesen is not true.

Not content with this week's signing of defender Michael Mancienne and midfielder Jacopo Sala, the Hamburg sporting director Frank Arnesen has lodged a firm bid for Chelsea's youth academy at Cobham.

Former Ajax and Denmark midfielder Arnesen joined HSV from Stamford Bridge in February, and has been quick to utilise his experience at the London club.

"Obviously I worked very closely with Cobham while I was at Chelsea. It's a good, strong young academy with a good football brain and two decent hydrotherapy pools."

Arnesen has drawn plaudits for the Mancienne and Sala signings, and reported loan target Josh McEachran, tipped as the "new Jack Wilshere", has fanned flames of optimism for Hamburg fans. Arnesen is equally confident about Cobham's chances.

"I'm equally confident about Cobham's chances," said the 54-year-old. "There's no question that he could be the next Josh McEachran."

Some eyebrows have been raised, by pundits and former Chelsea managers alike, about Arnesen's nascent transfer policy - Mancienne is only 23, while Sala and McEachran
are still in their teens - but the Dane isn't worried about Cobham's inexperience.

"Inexperience won't be a problem. Sure, Cobham is only six years old and some of the turf is still a bit loose, but he's been working with top players day in, day out for the last few seasons. And we've already seen that he has no problem coping with a wet Tuesday night in Stoke d'Abernon."