After England’s defeat in the quarter finals of Euro 2012, Channel 4 News looks at why the national team tend to disappoint when it really matters.
England supporters have been there so many times before: beaten by an often classier team in a penalty shoot-out. This time, Italy took the honours, the sixth time England have been knocked out of a major tournament on penalties.
Few would argue that the Italians deserved their win. They dominated possession and created more chances over 120 minutes and would have felt justifiably aggrieved if they had failed to progress to the semis.
England topped their group and defended manfully against a more technically gifted side, but once again, it has all come to an end with a bump.
On the football field, England’s finest hour was in 1966, when they beat West Germany in the World Cup final. More recently, although admittedly some time ago, they have got as far as the last four of the World Cup and the European Championships. But they have earned a reputation as a quarterfinal team, a group of players that tends to make it into the last eight and no further.
“Since 1986, England have been in the last eight. It’s not like it’s a crisis if we’re not as good as Germany and Italy,” he told Channel 4 News. “There are usually six to eight countries in the world that are better than England. It’s not like England are disastrous. England have no God-given right because they invented the game.”
It’s not like it’s a crisis if we’re not as good as Germany and Italy. Simon Kuper, co-author, Soccernomics
Mr Kuper said it was wrongly assumed that England’s manager could be relied on to take the team further than his predecessors, even though he was inheriting players who had already been “shaped” at club level.
“There’s an excessive belief in a manager’s ability to shape and inspire. It is the whole culture of football that creates players. The general trend is of the Premier League being exhausting.
“The English suffer more than players in other countries, playing more games than the Italians and Germans. They are better paid, it’s taken very seriously, and so is the demand on the players from September to May.”
Mr Kuper said that although Spanish footballers in La Liga did not play fewer games than the English, the Premier League was more competitive and physically onerous, which took its toll on players.
So what can England’s players learn from other European countries? “Football is about pass and control. Europeans understood that a long time ago. How do you pass from the age of six? In England that has never been so critical. Football is a dance in space: understanding where the space is and how to use it.
“Twelve years ago the Germans had this debate. They copied all sorts of methods from other countries. It’s about how you pass, not how big you are or how many shots you can block.”
The dominance of the Premier League, and the weakness of grassroors football, was another issue, said Mr Kuper, along with the sale of playing fields over the last 30 years.
“It’s not about training a small group of people in the elite. It’s about every football field in the country. You have to find a way to get lots of people playing football, not just once a week, and coach them in the right way. It requires a fair bit of money. In Holland, Germany, Sweden and Norway, you see football fields everywhere.”
The graphic above shows how the dominance of the English Premier League in the earlier stages of Euro 2012 has been replaced by footballers from Spain’s La Liga
If England had not beaten West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, arguably less would have been expected of them since then. This remains the high water mark of international achievement for England: the only time they have won a competition.
Looking back over the last 20 years, there have been successes, but also plenty of failures. What is striking is how consistently good the Germans have been, and how poorly England have performed in penalty shootouts.
1990: England were beaten by West Germany in a penalty shootout in the semi-finals before losing to Italy for third-place ranking.
1994: England did not qualify.
1998: England were beaten by Argentina in a penalty shootout in the round of 16; France beat Brazil in the final, their only victory in the competition.
2002: England lost to Brazil in the quarter-finals; Brazil beat Germany in the final, the fifth time they have managed this feat.
2006: England were beaten by Portugal in a penalty shootout in the quarters; Italy beat France in a penalty shootout in the final.
2010: England lost to Germany in the round of 16; Spain beat Holland in the final, their only World Cup victory.
1992: England failed to get further than the group stage; Denmark beat Germany in the final.
1996: England made it to the semis, beaten by Germany in a penalty shootout; Germany beat the Czechs in the final.
2000: once again, England failed to emerge from the group stage; France beat Italy in the final.
2004: England reached the last eight, beaten by Portugal in a penalty shootout; Greece beat Portugal in the final.
2008: England failed to qualify; Spain beat Germany in the final.
Brazil have won the World Cup five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002), Italy four times (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006) and Germany three times (1954, 1974, 1990).
Germany have been runners up four times, while the Dutch have been in this position on three occasions.
Germany have won three times (1972, 1980 and 1996), while France (1984, 2000) and Spain (1964, 2008) have been successful twice.
Germany have been runners-up on three occasions (1976, 1992, 2008).
The Football Association (FA) is not immune to England’s failures at tournaments and recognises that change is needed in the way coaches learn their trade and impart their knowledge.
That is why England’s national football centre, St George’s Park in Burton-on-Trent, is opening its doors in the summer of 2012 – 30 years after the idea was first suggested.
To prepare the ground, the FA visited and consulted national football centres in Italy (Coverciano), France (Clairefontaine), Holland (Zeist), Germany (Sport University, Cologne) and Spain (Cuidad de Football) – recognition that these countries are having more success at international level than England.
The idea is simple: in the FA’s words, the centre will become “a national home for coach education, in time producing better players”. Do not expect to see any immediate results; the key words here are “in time”.
Players, from England seniors to the grassroots, will also benefit from state-of-the-art training facililties, including education, sports medicine and science.
Throughout the country, at grassroots club level, children will learn to play differently, with smaller teams and smaller pitches.
In May, the FA’s shareholders voted to introduced a new mandatory regime that will see under-sevens and eights playing five-a-side, rather than 11-a-side, and under-11s and 12s facing one another in teams of nine.
No longer will small children play on full-size pitches with full-size goals. In future, they will be playing on smaller pitches, giving them more touches of the ball and the opportunity to develop their technical skills.
It is these skills that Spain and Barcelona have perfected: possession football, with hundreds of short passes; rather than hoofing the ball 40 yards up the pitch to the centre foward and hoping to score on the break.
Holding Italy at bay for 120 minutes on Sunday was a tribute to England’s dogged defending, but teams rarely win tournaments by adopting this aesthetically-displeasing approach. Brain not brawn is the new mantra.