ESPN FC Extra: State of England
It was hard to know what to make of it when Greg Dyke, the new chairman of the Football Association, delivered the following statement in his inaugural speech: "The two targets I have for the England team are -- one, to at least reach the semifinals of Euro 2020 and two, win the World Cup in 2022."
Did he really think it was a good idea to set such clear objectives? Was he not worried about putting undue pressure on English players? Did he realise that he'll be 75 years old and long gone from the FA by the time 2022 actually rolls around and nobody will remember this? Who knows?
The point is that saying something like that is asking for trouble. And not just because if it doesn't work out, you're setting yourself up for ridicule. But rather, because winning a World Cup isn't the metric by which you judge a nation's football health.
There are too many variables involved in a month-long knockout competition. Forget Spain for a minute; they really were the best in the competition over the past two Euros and 2010 World Cup. But go back and look at 2006, 2004, 2000, 1994, 1992... the margin between winning it all and coming up short can be tiny. An individual moment of magic, a refereeing decision, luck, happenstance... there is plenty of stuff for which you can't legislate.
There is also, realistically, a limited number of things the Football Association -- or any FA -- can do to make it happen. And not one of them is a sure thing. (Well, actually, naturalizing dozens of Adnan Januzajs might be as close to a sure thing as you get, but let's assume that won't happen.)
You can throw money at the problem. You can spend more on facilities. You can spend more to train youth coaches. (You could also hire a flashy foreign manager with a big reputation, but we've been there and done that and it hasn't quite worked out )
Beyond that, it's slim pickings. Sure, investing more money on facilities and coaching will improve youth development and that could help produce more players of a decent standard in absolute terms and instill better habits in some of the ones who do make it. It might help reduce the proportion of foreign players in the Premier League, though that by no means will automatically improve the England team.
But the reality is that to win major tournaments you need either outstanding individual players -- genuine difference-makers -- or a healthy dose of good fortune or, ideally, both. With the possible exception of Greece in 2004 (who were more about the latter), every team that has won a major trophy in the past 25 years had both.
And you can't plan on producing outstanding individuals. It simply doesn't work that way. Look at Manchester United. David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Nevilles all broke into the first-team in the span of a few years in the early 1990s. The next 20-odd years produced what? Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher, John O'Shea, Wes Brown.
Not that these are bad players; all are fine pros. Welbeck and Cleverley may go on to have star-studded international careers. But it's safe to say that, as a group, the first half dozen far outstrips the second half dozen, even though the latter came through over two whole decades.
It's not that Manchester United suddenly decided to neglect their academy. Or started sacking the good coaches and replacing them with fools. In fact, investment in youth development went way up. But the reality is that when you're talking about superstars, you're often talking about outliers. Freaks of nature with unusual athletic, technical and mental skill sets. There's no rhyme or reason to when and where they turn up.
Obviously, if they appear in the right conditions -- like a top academy with excellent coaching -- then they're more likely to develop and fulfill their potential. And, equally, if they're in worse circumstances -- bad coaches, unsettled family life, poor facilities -- it will be tougher for them to emerge.
But if you put average -- or even very good players -- in excellent conditions, they won't necessarily make that leap to superstardom. All those guys who followed Fergie's Fledglings through the United Academy are testament to that.
So does it mean you give up? No. You do the best you can and hope the numbers work in your favour. You expose as many kids as possible to the game and support them with the best possible coaching you can afford and you keep your fingers crossed. If it works out, you'll get the superstars you need to compete for a major trophy. And if you're also lucky -- or at least not unlucky -- you might actually win it.
But you might do all this and not produce enough superstars. You might just find yourself with a better standard of player across the board, but still not enough to win it all, much less be guaranteed to win it. And that's fine. That ought to be your objective. Trying to grow and improve.
By defining success as reaching Euro semifinals and winning World Cups all Dyke has done is put the English game at the mercy of luck and happenstance. For better or for worse.