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…