After the decision by the British public to leave the European Union on the 24th June (dubbed as Brexit), it seems the England national football team decided to follow suit just three days later in the early stages of the European Championship 2016. The latter will go down in English footballing history either as possibly the most humiliating departure of a major tournament, or a significant opportunity for change. So, without further ado, the Facilitate4Me Change Practitioner of the Month award goes to… Iceland, a little country (population of 323,000) and an undoubted underdog of the European championship, for beating the mighty England (population 65.1 million, and the proud nation that invented football) 2-1 to knock them out of the Euro 2016 football tournament in France, and for inadvertently causing us to re-think our strategy when it comes to England playing football abroad.
The England football team became the subject of domestic and international mockery as they crashed out of the competition in the early stages (in the round of last 16), succumbing to baby Iceland. It’s worth noting that Iceland doesn’t have a professional football league, making the defeat all the more embarrassing considering the fortunes of the Premier League, England’s elite professional football league.
For years the Premier League has been widely described as the best league in the world, praised for its competitiveness and ability to attract the most talented players and managers across the globe. The upcoming 2016/17 season will see ex-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in charge of Manchester United, and former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola take the reigns of rivals Manchester City. The league is also home to some of the most successful teams in the history of the game, including Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.
The Premier League is also the richest in the world. Competition between England’s premier sports broadcasters BT and Sky (BskyB) has driven the overall value of the live TV rights to more than £5.14bn over three seasons, according to an article by The Guardian.
Furthermore, a report by Bloomberg states that the league generates €2.2 billion per year in domestic and international television rights. That’s more than double the €975 million earned by second-ranked Italy’s Serie A, according to the TV Sports Markets report.
Yet, despite the commercial success of the domestic league, the national team has continued to disappoint on the global stage, failing to win a single tournament or trophy since their 1966 World Cup tournament victory when it was, coincidently, hosted in England. Their best performance aside from this was when they reached the semi-finals in the 1996 Euro Championship, also hosted in England.
This latest exit at the hands of Iceland marks another moment in the steady decline of English progression in major tournaments. England lost to Italy in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, and failed to make it out of the group stages during a horrendous World Cup campaign in Brazil 2014.
So what has gone wrong? And more importantly, what happens now? How is it that a domestic league so strong and competitive can’t replicate that same success on the international stage?
Many commentators, pundits, journalists and members of the public have pointed to numerous possible factors:
- The manager isn’t good enough.
- The players aren’t good enough.
- The players don’t have passion when they play for their country.
I propose a new reason for England’s faltering form – one which coincidentally also provides a possible opportunity for the way forward.
I believe our inability to export English players to peer leagues abroad is greatly hindering us in international competitions. Whilst thousands of foreign players from the biggest footballing nations like Germany, France, Italy and Spain ply their trade in the English league and develop their skills even further, I can count on one hand how many English players do the same abroad. The reluctance of our players to seek new pastures and fly the nest of the Premier League means that they only learn to play one style of football, i.e. the football that suits the style and culture of the English Premier League. Failing to leave the comforts of home means that they don’t learn the tough defensive style associated with Serie A (Italian league), or the attacking flair epitomised by La Liga (Spanish league). With such experience in tow, they would be able to return to their national side and offer first-hand knowledge as to how foreign opponents play, including their strengths and weaknesses. This can only benefit the English national side and therefore, lift them out of the realm of the “one trick pony” in international tournaments.
The select number of British players who have taken the leap abroad include the likes of David Beckham (who played for Manchester United (England), Real Madrid (Spain), AC Milan (Italy), PSG (France) and LA Galaxy (USA)). More recently Gareth Bale, who led his Wales side to their first ever semi-finals at Euro 2016, also made the switch from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid at a time when he was the biggest fish at Tottenham. Both Bale and Beckham became stronger and more formidable players as a result of playing abroad. Other great English players who weren’t afraid to play abroad include Gary Linekar (Barcelona), Chris Waddle (Marseille), David Platt (Juventus), Paul Ince (Inter Milan) and Steve McManaman (Real Madrid), who became the first English player to win the Champions League with a non-English club in the year 2000.
Aside from the development on the field, playing abroad also allows footballers to learn a new language, thus opening many more opportunities for them to live and work in foreign countries during their professional career and once they have retired.
Considering that the world’s most successful national teams like Germany, Spain, Italy and France regularly export their players to foreign leagues, it surely can’t be a coincidence. In a world where doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is rightly classified as madness, can it really be a bad thing to completely overhaul the current system in English football and look at how we can introduce incentives to encourage more English players to play abroad? Would it, for example, be impossible to introduce a qualification criterion that mandates that a player plays at least one year in another country before he can qualify for selection for the national side? Yes, it may be a radical change to many, and inconvenient to others and yes it will require developing a level of familiarity with a foreign language which is currently missing from the average English person’s DNA. However, after the international embarrassment that was the defeat to Iceland, isn’t a radical change exactly what we need? After all, what do we have to lose?