The inquest into England’s worst ever World Cup campaign has focused on the usual questions of team selection, tactics and the attitude of the players, along with the obligatory search for a scapegoat. Comparatively little attention has been given to the deeper structural and cultural factors that have inhibited England’s long-term performance on the pitch. Poor coaching? A dearth of talent? A dysfunctional league structure? Sure, but these are just symptoms. There are more fundamental reasons for England’s 48 years of hurt and they reflect the deficiencies of our society and economy more generally.
The story of football in this country is, of course, inseparably linked to the rise of industrial capitalism. It was the creation of an urban working class that provided the catalyst for football’s emergence as a form of mass entertainment. Britain’s trading empire was the transmission mechanism that turned it into a global sport. But having gifted football and capitalism to the world, Britain quickly became a second-rank power in both. By 1914, Germany and the United States were well on the way to becoming the dominant industrial economies. As Jonathan Wilson notes in his book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, the spirit of innovation in football moved abroad almost as soon as other countries adopted the game.
This is more than simple coincidence. In economics, as in sport, a mix of hubris, insularity and misplaced cultural superiority meant that Britain was reluctant to learn from, or even acknowledge, the extent to which other countries had taken our ideas and improved them. The footballing authorities believed there was a correct way to play the game—direct, uncomplicated and physical, corresponding to a peculiarly English upper-class notion of manliness. Signs of professionalism, like training, were frowned upon and even the Scottish innovation of passing the ball instead of rushing at the goal was resisted at first. These attitudes are still reflected in the way the sport is often coached at youth level, the cries of “shoot” whenever the ball passes the half-way line and the frankly ludicrous debate about whether England should practice penalties.
British capitalism is in many ways the economic equivalent of the long ball game. The “gentlemanly” values that permeated the City before the Big Bang may have been swept away like the Cornithian ethos in sport, but their legacy endures in a managerial culture that prefers the muscular, route-one approach to profit making over the patient style of our foreign competitors. It has produced an unstable, lop-sided economy that chooses financial engineering and credit-fuelled growth over the difficult business of making products that other countries want to buy.
The link between short-termism in football and industry becomes more obvious when you consider the emergence of the PLC as the dominant form of club ownership. One consequence has been the emergence of a hire and fire mentality that has seen the tenure of league managers halve in the space of two decades to less than 1.5 years, despite compelling evidence that sacking the manager usually does more harm than good. Last season’s dismissal of David Moyes was even timed to coincide with the opening of the New York Stock Exchange.
The proportion of homegrown players in the top-flight football has shrunk from 69 per cent to 32 per cent since the launch of the Premier League in 1992, narrowing opportunity and draining the pool of talent. Free movement and the short-term pressures of the game combine to make this inevitable. Why waste time and money nurturing a local player who may or may not turn out to be a superstar when you can buy one off the peg from abroad, especially when you’re a manager with a life expectancy of 1.5 years? The same link between rising labour mobility and collapsing training budgets in the wider economy is the reason why immigration is now a proxy issue for economic insecurity.
England’s prospects are unlikely to improve without serious reform designed to redistribute power and resources within the game. The first step should be to do something about an ownership structure that has turned our top clubs into little more than a collection of investment assets and oligarchs’ playthings. A move towards the German system, where majority fan ownership is mandatory, would create the committed, long-term ownership needed to change the priorities of football governance. Bundesliga clubs invest twice as much in youth football, have twice as many homegrown players and keep their managers for twice as long. The shift could be gradual. Why not require Premier League clubs to transfer a proportion of gate receipts each year into a supporters trust in the form of a shareholding until it reaches 50 per cent +1?
A second objective should be to redirect investment towards youth training. There is no shortage of money in the game; it’s just going to the wrong places. Premier League clubs spend 71 per cent of their revenues on players’ wages compared to 51 per cent in the Bundesliga. There may be little the authorities can do to stop clubs from spending money in this way, but why not oblige top clubs to contribute a proportion of their payroll to fund the youth academies of clubs in the lower divisions? Those who spend the most trying to buy short-term success should invest the most in securing the long-term future of the national game.
It would be too reductive to suggest bad football is the result of bad capitalism and more accurate to say that they share common roots in a national culture based on short-termism and laissez-faire. Building a more “responsible” capitalism would create a wider context of reform in which the game’s deficiencies could be finally addressed. The alternative would be to carry on as if nothing is really wrong until the next financial crash and the next World Cup exit.
David Clark is editor of shiftinggrounds.com