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#oneaday 1: The decline of auotcracy, in the national interest…?

 Given the generally depressed outlook all the way back in dark old days of 2010, I would like to think that 2011 would be a year where things started to get a little bit  better? On a personal front 2010 was as good as any year, but as a West Ham and England supporter it was absolutely dire. Mind you, if you are a Chelsea or a Liverpool supporter, it has also been pretty dire and in Chelsea’s case this is a major change in fortunes twelve months on.  A bright start to the year for the England national team soon faded and hopes of glory ended in a seedy and bloated fashion in South Africa.  Money it seems, can’t buy you love, or indeed sustained success and certainly not the right to host a World Cup.   However, behind the easy headlines though perhaps we are getting a glimpse of a different and possibly a better way of getting collective success. 

2011 saw the slow but significant decline of the’ autocracy’. Gordon Brown, a famed autocrat, led the way in politics by losing an election, all be it narrowly, to a couple of jolly decent chaps who days before were at each other’s throats but seemingly had no choice but to bury their hatchets and work together ‘in the national interest’. We hailed the ‘New Politics’ and even the most cynical of commentators have had to admit that coalition politics is a reality which will be with us for some time, who knows may be for the next 4 1/2 years. We have already seen the compromises and ‘breaking of promises’, but that surely is a sign that change is upon us and one party ideology over another is surely too 20th century. In any case, good or bad it is a change and change can be as a good as a rest.

Moving sideways into sport and specifically football, we have seen the cracks appearing at the top, namely at Liverpool, Chelsea and to some extent at Manchester United. The debacle at Anfield has been a long time coming, but it has torn a once invicible and hugely proud club apart at the seams. A couple of ‘no nothing (about football) ‘ Americans – Gillette and Hicks –  basically borrowed unfeasible amounts of cash to buy a ‘business opportunity’ which they could not resist. The rest is history, except that history is still being written – Americans still own the club, all be it different ones, and Roy Hodgson, the critics’ chocie to replace Capello post South Africa, is on the thinest of thin ice, after only 5 months. The fans are calling for control.

Over at Old Trafford, the fans have been vocal ever since Mr Glazer and his sons and/or brothers took over, again leveraging the cash  debt against the assets of the club. Only Alec Ferguson could steady the ship, bringing an errant Rooney to heel and deliver continued success, seemingly. What will happen when Sir Alex eventually decides to press his stopwatch for the last time?  Again the fans are calling for control, via various business consortia.

However, the biggest  surprise has been in the softie South, in West London, the home of millionaires, billionaires and those who govern us. Chelsea. The absolute reign of Roman Abramovic rolls on,  but the cracks are starting to appear and the water is flooding into the ship. The Mighty Roman is almost like a latter day Captain Smith on the bridge of the Titanic. Chelsea, the unsinkable machine, have hit an iceberg and now need to change course, and make repairs fast. Ray Wilkins was sacked and no one knew why. Ancelotti is living by a thread and their players, used to winning, are getting older and their ambition is blunted. The murmurs from the fans have started and if the bad run continues, those whispers become taunts, which become boos, which become protest and leads to a boycott. The Roman is under pressure and you have to wonder how he will deal with it, given his meteoric rise to fortune and lack of experience in the ‘old’ country. I personally think that he will simply fire and forget, but time will be my judge, and those Chelsea fans may well be demanding control before 2011 is too much older.

So these autocratic club owners may be facing up to the reality of managing people, highly paid ones, who just don’t follow the script. Who knows if there will be more fan democracy at play in 2011, I personally hope so, but what other country allows their prize business assets to be sold to anyone who raises the money? After all, this was the year that Cadbury’s was sold to Kraft and promises made pre-sale, were soon broken once the paperwork had gone through. We operate in a free market, and it allegedly produces the best ‘product’, the dear old Premier League is the best in the world, we are told,  but in the national interest? From the England football team’s perspective, that will never happen.

Meanwhile over in Geneva, one autocratic organisation that is totally self interested and is not showing any signs of changing  soon has announced that they are setting up an anti corruption committee.  FIFA and corruption are words that seem to travel all over the world together on expenses. Let’s see how this one develops in 2011.

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This title, which has become part of the English language in a particular  famous letter printed by French newspaper L’Aurore in January 13th 1898 penned by Emile Zola. Now this name is made up of 2 unique  names, both of which we associate with football, and close, it must be said to my heart.

Gianfranco Zola, the wonderful footballer and possibly the nicest man in football disgracefully treated by the new owners of West Ham, messrs David Gold and Sullivan and Emile Heskey, the England footballer who has just announced his retirement from international football.

J’accuse the owners of West Ham and J’accuse the world for the abuse heaped on poor old Emile. He is not the best footballer in England,  he does not possess the finest of touches and does not read the game in the same way as players such as Shearer and Sheringham, but at least he always tried. How must he feel time and time again in the run up to an international game. It starts with his selection as a squad member, always universally met with howls of derison from the media. Then, heaven forbid, he gets picked for a game and the media and the fans howl again. If he is substituted, he is often seen off to a chorus of disapproval. Worse still his name is used in a song sung by the fans in an attempt at irony, ‘ 5-1 and even Heskey scored’ , doubly ironic as this was the baiting cry that heradled the opening exchanges between English and German fans in Bloemfontein a few weeks back. His goal scoring record is worse than Rene Higuita and Jose Luis Chilaver, both internationals for Columbia and Paraguay respectively, and both goalkeepers.

So he has tied his last international bootlace up and will never be seen in the England colours again, unless Robbie Williams tempts him one more time for Soccer Aid.  I bet he is actually relieved to be away from the whole furore. Let’s face it, all he ever did was agree to play, and that many managers have picked him, from memory Capello, O’Neill, Bruce, Houlier, Eriksson, McClaren, Keegan and more it goes to show that there is consistency. So don’t blame Heskey, please. It’s like picking a one armed pianist to play at your wedding, whilst you may get the semblance of a tune, it will not be balanced or indeed what you were expecting. What it does highlight is one, simple fact. England just do not have many good forwards and given that the heir apparent to Heskey is either Darren Bent or Gabriel Agbonlahor, well it a’int going to get better before it stays the same or even gets worse.  J’accuse the system that simply does not produce footballers who have technique over power, touch over pace, balance over strength and intelligence over brawn. Emile, I salute you, you did your best and that’s that.

One last thought. My approach to the current England football team is not to drop them all and start again, yet. Rather Capello should pick the same 11 that started against Germany, barring Emile and anyone else who announces their retirement from international football and let them face the few who pay good money to attend the ‘friendly’ against another faded nation, Hungary, on August 11th. I for one will be attending that game, and it will be very interesting to see what actually happens that night. Hungary arguably showed England the way to play in1953 when they thumped us 6-3. We are one game on from year zero, so let’s indulge the old regime one last time and start afresh after the fans who travelled to support their team in South Africa have had their catharsis. That or change the whole lot at half time……

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The Legacy of the World Cup

Not my words but the words of Peter Delonno from Business Report. Incidentally the British couple mentioned at the foot of the page under Cyberspace is in fact Kirsty and I. Funny old world. Enjoy!



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A Fitting Finale, if not Final

So the end of the World Cup happened and we have to wait another four years before we can enjoy it all over again. Now this may not seem like a long time to those of you young enough to have your best years ahead of you, but to us older types, the years are increasingly precious and we don’t know how many more we will be able to attend. I would hope to still be attending well into my seventies and beyond. For some this will probably be the last, and for Nelson Mandela surely the oldest man in Soccer City last night, his appearance before the game capped a near perfect tournament. If the football had been better, it would have been a perfect 10, that’s for sure.

Watching on TV is never satisfactory, and if England had made the final, we would have been there, unlikely as that event would have been of course. Some good friends had been lucky enough to have made the trip, David who I cycled with earlier this year on the Dallaglio Cycleslam, Ian who climbed Kilimanjaro with the rest of us in 2004 and Dom, with whom I went to school and who was the host with the most whilst we were in Johannesburg and I am sure they would have sucked in the atmosphere, which I know would have been electric. But to be there, in that stadium in Soccer City, when Nelson Mandela was driven in on his little golfing buggy across a white carpet, well that must have been a very special moment, and boy did Madiba have the biggest smile in the whole world. He must have been so proud, so pleased and above all so happy that his beloved land had delivered this the biggest sporting tournament in the world. Whether or not FIFA had put this old, frail man who will be 92 next week under pressure is another story ( as they say in South Africa). Rather fitting that he did not stay for the matchthen, as it really did not do anything to enhance the reputation of the so called beautiful game. Indeed another ‘leader’ looked on whilst the battle between the total footballers of Spain and the Total Cloggers of the Netherlands played out. One Robert Mugabe. Hero of Zimbabwe in 1980, now pariah of Africa. What exactly that evil man was doing there is anyone’s guess. If FIFA invited him, shame on them. If South Africa invited him, shame on them too. The only black mark in this whole tournament was his presence at this final.

The game was absorbing if ultimately disappointing. Spain’s football is sublime and in Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets and Alonso they have a quartet that not only pull every string, but make every string sing. Not since Brazil 70 have we seen such masters.

This was a victory for the little man. Even their power house at the back, Puyol is shorter than would be accepted in the English leagues and plays with his heart on his sleeve. With his distinctive locks, resembling Tony Iommi or David Coverdale circa 1976 (ironically in the times of the truly great Dutch footballers), he was an inspiration. Spain hold the ball and as my co watcher last night Steve said, ‘they are not afraid to go backwards’. By contrast Holland decided to become the new West Germany. No shortage of skill was secondary to pure muscle and more often than not overt aggression. Van Bommell plays like Graeme Souness without the touch and De Jong is like Jimmy Case. One attack on Alonso begged the question ‘was De Jong a big Bruce Lee fan as a kid’ karate, or otherwise, and De Jong was lucky not to be sent off before half time. Indeed the martial arts approach was contagious with Schneidjer auditioning as Cato for an episode in the Green Hornet. I bet Howard Webb wondered what he had walked into last night.

A moment of sublime brilliance from Spain’s biggest bit part player, Fabregas, a man who would walk into any of the other thirty one teams taking part, was met equally by one from the diminutive Iniesta, who for me was the man of the match, despite some journalists and commentators stating he had had a poor game (?). The cup was Spain’s and they swapped shirts from blue to red (with a star of course) as is their tradition – I have now found out – but a significant departure from World Cup tradition, I may add. A future trivia question will be what is unusual about the picture of Spain receiving the World Cup in 2010. Add in ‘who was the only unbeaten team in the tournament’ and children not yet born will never guess it was the part timers from New Zealand.

Faced with BBC TV coverage, ITV was frankly beyond the pale, it was evident that Lee Dixon, Alan Hansen, Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker had all been impressed by the people and the country that is South Africa. They were all visibly moved by the appearance of Mandela and all pleased that Spain had won. On a night where good triumphed over bad (barring one certain Robert Mugabe’s presence of course), the BBC ended their coverage with a District 9 style cinematic piece. Whether you thought it was cheese or not, and I did not, it did point to the questions that remain. Those of legacy, inequality, poverty and social justice. District 6 has long gone, but let’s hope its legacy is going now. Indeed let’s hope the World Cup 2010 is the kick start that all of Africa needs in this ever competitive world dominated by the new colonial powers of multinational globalisation.

South Africa – wave your flag with pride and belief. Well done.

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The Final Act

As the final act of a wonderful World Cup is upon us, one thing is certain; a new name on the trophy. And a new name on the map. South Africa and Africa in general has been the winner. Let’s hope the best football team wins it tonight. It is sure to be a classic. One of THE best World Cups ever in terms of atmosphere and feeling.

Loads more in my note book, just need some time to write it all up….story of my life really.

PS – And Madiba, Nelson Mandela is there. Fabulous. Absolutely brilliant. I wish I was there!


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Karma Police arrest these men….

So here we are, almost at the end of the 2010 World Cup and 11 days after England’s exit made without a bang but with plenty of whimper.

I have no idea if those that run the English game will make any major changes, but I am very pleased to report that the loyal fans who travelled thousands of miles in support of the team have changed, and changed for the better.

This is the third World Cup that there has been virtually no sign of the bad old days. I believe that there have been no arrests for violence amongst the fans, yes zero this time around. Now this is definitely a good thing and shows the rest of the world that we have changed a lot, and will continue to do so. Has this change happened ‘naturally’ and in line with the free market theory? Or has there been intervention?

In truth there is evidence that free market, evolutionary principles have played their part, but so have authorities on both sides. A coming together of various ideas and approaches means that following England’s football team is no longer the dangerous pursuit it once was. Go back to the eighties and nineties and one’s memories of the local or host culture was more likely to be centred around police tactics, local thug hotspots and tales of skirmishes and chair throwing on warm sunny days. Warring factions within the England support was also always a factor. I can speak from experience in the 80s whereby being a West Ham supporter meant exactly that and there was no quarter given to other England fans. Firms from Burnley, Stoke, Carlisle, Portsmouth, Millwall, Sunderland would always clash along with Chelsea, Leeds, and biggest of the lot Man Utd. Liverpool and Everton fans would arrive before everyone else, avoid much of the violence and concentrate on ‘monetising’ their trips, much to the loss of local traders.

Over the years the dynamic changed from offensive in the early 80’s, to herd like in the 90’s into reactive and sometimes defensive at the turn of the century. Although I did not travel to South Korea (England were based in Japan for the tournament), the overall feeling was one of initial scepticism that the Japanese and Koreans would never be able to host a World Cup to a feeling of ‘what a fantastic World Cup and hats off to both hosts’. Indeed Japan/South Korea 2002 saw some key ‘game changers’.

1) Reception. This was the first time in my experience that the locals actually wanted the legions of foreign supporters in their country. Not only that, but the Japanese went out of their way to welcome us – even offering us gifts before matches and smiling constantly. There were no mobs of locals trying to make a reputation by fighting England football fans. Even the police were cool and did not behave proactively aggressively to us. That makes a big difference.
2) Example. Having seen the behaviour of English cricket and rugby fans down the years, despite copious amounts of alcohol and often crazy exposure to hard sunshine, football fans or at least some of them, decided to take the lead and change things. They also saw the rebranding of Scotland’s fans into the loveable ‘Tartan Army’ and thought, why can’t we do this? Whilst this has been an evolution rather than a revolution, the change is real and it is being noticed abroad.
3) Cost. Japan was and is expensive and thus much of the ‘exciteable youth’ could not afford it.
4) Intervention. The English police and government have steadily taken action against known troublemakers for years and have in excess of 3,500 banning orders in place to stop idiots travelling. This has helped enormously.
5) Time. Many of the passionate England football fans of the early 80’s let their passion boil over into violence. It is only a game and it is all about your mates and having a laugh. Some, if not all, have realised that marauding round some foreign city on a state of perpetual alert is actually quite stressful and completely unnecessary. Indeed, sitting in a bar drinking fine wine, foreign beer, and sampling all sorts of different foods is eminently more appealing.
6) Entertainment. One of the few things that FIFA has done outside of making billions of dollars out of the World Cup is to set up the biggest and longest sporting party in the world bar none. Football is all about entertainment ultimately, much as that will grate with the 40 somethings who have been brought up to follow the team of their forefathers without question. The passion for the shirt is still there, and so it should be, but it is no longer frowned upon to watch other games live and just live the whole footballing extravaganza to the full. The World Cup gets bigger, not necessarily better in terms of the quality of football, but it does get better in terms of the overall entertainment and vibe.

So, given that the fans have made changes, let’s see if the England players both present and future can do the same. The fans have shown the right example, leadership and commitment. Indeed, I wonder just how many England fans took the time to visit Robben Island, surely the most inspiring place in South Africa? I suspect thousands of them. Every single one I met had been there. How many England players did the same? Precisely zero. They were all too busy playing golf, or just tired out by the whole thing. Not so in the Netherlands camp. Those boys all gave up their time to visit the place of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration. Karma police note, who got into the final and who may just win this World Cup. Hup Holland!

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Leaviing on a Jet Plane

Goodbye and goodnight to South Africa. Regardless of who actually wins the World Cup, you are the winners. Amazing country and amazing people. Rainbow Nation? Yes. Leaving Johannesburg now, after an emotional time on all fronts. From Robben Island, to Madikwe, to Wilderness, to Isandlwana this has been better than Japan 2002 and that is saying something.

Plenty of writing to do as we have been signal less for three days, whilst visiting Fugitives Drift, KwaZulu Natal. Tune in over the next few days for more fun. Meanwhile we are surrounded on both sides, not by brave Zulus, but by about two dozen mini children, where is my air pistol when I need it?

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D.A. Go!

Klose but no cigar Diego. Poor bloke, after 24 years we still have not avenged that act of cheating, but it was lovely to see you slaughtered. Mullered son, mullered out of sight. No one likes you and now no one cares. Hats and helmuts off to ze Germans, you played wonderful football and thoroughly deserved to win this game. Now go out and win the whole thing!

Deutschland. Alles. Go. D A go!

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Marvellous Madikwe and the Big Five Game Drive

Wednesday 30th June – published Saturday 3rd July (Kirsty’s blog)

Andy, Keith and myself set off for Madikwe Game Reserve about four and half hours drive north west of Joburg on the Botswanan border, I’m really looking forward to it as it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. You may have noticed that’s there’s a discernible gap between my blogs, this is because I’m maintaining radio silence on the debacle that was England vs Germany at Bloemfontein…nough said!

We negotiate our way through about 90km of gravel tracks before reaching one of the gates to Madikwe (this doesn’t include a slight detour that the satnav decided upon itself to take us so we revert to good old fashioned maps ).

As soon as we pass the gate we see giraffes and impala and drive for about another half an hour through the bush looking for our lodge, Madikwe River Lodge, little did we know at the time that we could have bumped into fully grown wild lions at any point during our drive…not sure what we would have done if we had!

We’re greeted by lovely smiling staff with a hot flannel and a glass of juice, hardly roughing it, and subsequently shown to our lodges. It’s a beautiful wooden lodge with a thatched roof set on the river with a large decked area, inside is split level with the largest bed I’ve ever seen covered in about a hundred cushions…all this luxury is in the middle of the South African bush!

After a quick sandwich we head out to our truck for our first game drive of the trip, we’re joined by a lovely bunch of people including a polish family Kris, Helena and their son Wicktor along with their South African friend Vivian, Marc who’s from Germany but with not a trace of a German accent, he has a soft American accent due to going to college in the US, two American brothers, Nikhil and Aroon and our Madikwe guide Jerry.

Before setting off Jerry asked us what we’re looking forward to seeing and I reply elephants…though in hindsight I should have added “from a safe distance”

Off we go through the bush and spot impalas, zebras and giraffes almost straight away, we’re were tackling pretty rough terrain and at one point negotiated a particularly steep and rocky section. Then about two minutes after this, Jerry spots a herd of elephants in the bushes, though as we stop and switch off the engine in order to observe them, there’s a distinctive hissing noise and it becomes apparent that it’s coming from the tyre. The problem here is that we’ve stopped right in the middle of the path that the elephants are taking (a no no in the wild, we’re told to always give the animals an escape route and don’t block their route). So there we are, unable to move (Jerry did try to reverse) slap bang in the middle of the path of a herd of elephants and their young, which makes them doubly dangerous as cows will do anything protecting the babies.

We were told to keep very quiet and very still and the elephants started to amble past us, everything was fine until the last two alpha females of the group, one of them actually suckling her calf and so had to stop very close to us. Jerry had just been explaining to us about the signs of an angry elephant that’s about to charge, the signs are pacing, ear flapping, pawing the ground and throwing dirt into the air with their trunks, the final sign being trumpeting. Suddenly one of the females who was extremely close to us started to go angrily go round in circles, ears flapping furiously, pawing the ground and chucking dirt about the place…this was getting scary, we were sitting ducks, we couldn’t get out of there, I very slowly glanced at Helena who couldn’t even look, but by far the worst view was catching sight of Jerry our guide, who was looking absolutely petrified, sweating and looking for all the world like he was one step away from needing a change of underwear!!!

My heart was pounding out of my chest, I daren’t take my eyes off her and even more sinister was the way the mother who was suckling her young started moving very slowly in our direction while staring menacingly, added to which one of the young suddenly startled and ran across our path trumpeting…as Andy quite rightly pointed out “this was bad news!’ Though Andy then suggested that I try and take a photo of the angry about to charge elephant for posterity…I nearly swore at him but I didn’t want to move my mouth too much in case the elephant saw me move, as apparently if you keep still they just see the whole truck and not the individual.

After a while both females calmed down slightly and following a final harrumph moved on to push over some nearby trees. Jerry leapt into action got the jack and the spare tyre and as the elephants were still nearby asked us to hide around the one side of the truck while he changed the wheel. Andy went off help him though unfortunately the wheel wouldn’t fit! Know we really were in trouble, it was starting to get dark, we had a flat tyre with no spare, angry elephants were nearby, it’s unsafe out of the truck at anytime of day but especially at night as this is when the lions would certainly take pot luck and hunt a slow moving or indeed any moving person! There was only one thing to do…we erected a picnic table, covered it with a table cloth and poured some stiff gin and tonics, complete with ice and lemon, how very British! All the while with Jerry keeping watch and listening for the low grumble of lions or the return of the elephants.

After two hours, most of it in the dark and getting quite cold, rescue came in the shape of a spare wheel and our exciting adventure for the evening was over, Jerry didn’t admit it until afterwards that he was really scared, though to be fare he didn’t need to, just one look at his face revealed the fear accompanied by a look of terror in his eyes…he wasn’t the only one!

We spent a pleasant evening eating outdoors with a nice glass of red or two. I tried pap for the first time accompanied by the most tender melt in the mouth eland, it was glorious (though we might have seen one in the wild earlier), we got to know our lovely ‘truck neighbours’ better and chatted to Kris, Helena (Wiktor was a little tired by this point) and Vivian, then Marc, Andy, Keith and I moved next to the fire and spent a fair bit of time discussing football and FIFA. A perfect day and nobody died!


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England. Football. Life. The Future.

Friday 2nd July (Andy’s blog)

Now the dust has settled on the rout of England in Bloemfontein, physically if not emotionally, and we have had time to breathe, count to ten, add one for pot and make things neat, where do we go from here?

The same place we always go. Nowhere. Or more specifically not as far as most England fans and media would like to think. Not unless there is some bold, radical and visionary leadership. For that to happen, we need a complete clear out at all levels. The old club tie brigade at the FA, the shoe ins in the team, the profitmeisters at the Premier League, the press hacks for red tops and otherwise all need to be rebooted, or just booted. In short, evolution has left not just English, but British football behind, we either have a revolution – Year Zero – or we continue on the road to nowhere, allowing the free market to capitalise on football or soccer as an ‘entertainment product’. We can mask the cracks, conceptualise and build brands (Club England anyone?), hire all sorts of MBA qualified marketing types and try and buy our way out of trouble or we can look at other nations and learn. Whilst we may think fhat we invented the modern game, and by all accounts The Victorians did, we have been well and truly left in the wake of at least ten other nations. Above all we should invest in youth, and ensure that it is nurtured and allowed the freedom to grow, but whether the youth will behave responsibly and buck the trends of a tearaway nation is anyone’s guess, I wouldn’t back them too heavily.

On the subject of youth, and the reason why I love the World Cup goes way back, forty years. My first memory of watching a World Cup was in 1970. My dad bought a brand new colour TV, we were the first people to get one in the street, complete with a remote control (ok it had a channel and volume button only and was attached to the set by wire, but it was the best gadget ever) just in time for the football. England were reigning world champions and I had collected my stickers, which in those days were printed both sides (player information on the reverse) with a small strip of adhesive across the top. You licked this and carefully applied the player picture in the right position within the book. I proudly collected the whole set in advance of kick off, and my dad also collected the Esso coin collection for me, which featured all 30 of the original squad including fringe players. Names such as Alan Oakes, Keith Newton and his brother Henry, Colin Bell, Peter Bonetti, Peter Storey, Jeff Astle, Ian Storey Moore, Brian Labone and of course Geoff, Martin and the two Bobbys stuck with me. I was glued to every game and remember reading about the effects of altitude in my Shoot magazine, something that had helped Bob Beamon smash the long jump World Record in Mexico City two years earlier, another memory burned into my infant brain. But despite being reigning World Champions, I watched every game we played with my little heart in my mouth. It was my Grandad, West Ham through and through and a football, racing and boxing enthusiast come expert who told me, ‘we’re not that good, always trying to pass the ball into the back of the net instead of cracking one. England are just like West Ham really.’ In the first game against Romania we won 1-0 with Super Geoff (my all time hero) getting the goal, I think. The second game was against the masters, Brazil, the greatest football team I have ever seen. We lost narrowly 1-0 and Jeff Astle missed a sitter. Gordon Banks made the greatest save of all time and Jarzhino netted to win the game. Our last group game was against Czechoslovakia, who we again beat 1-0. And then we went to the quarter finals to face Germany. Don’t forget that there were only 16 teams in those days. 2-0 up and cruising, we lost 3-2, Gerd Muller passed into English paraochial slang for ever more and this little seven year old went to be crying. Everyone ranted on about how England should have played Brazil in the final, but for the Germans ( and of course the Italians who knocked them out in the semis), but that all felt terribly contrived and optimistic, to me even at the time and I was only seven.

Then we really did hit the fallow times two World Cups with no England in it, as an 11 and then as a 15 year old, left to watch Scotland and my second team Italy. I even fell out of love with Brazil on account of them changing from ‘the’ team of pace and skill to a bunch of cloggers in 74, and replaced my warm feelings for them with admiration for the Dutch.

During this time where there were no World Cups as far as England were concerned, English teams won the European Cup, a proper unseeded cup which only allowed the champions of each UEFA member league to enter, a staggering seven times in eight years 1977/78 Liverpool, 79/80 Nottingham Forest, 81 Liverpool, 82 Aston Villa and 84 Liverpool. The English First Division dominated the European Cup. Indeed there were similarities to English Premier League teams dominance of the Champions’ League today even though the competition is a complete misnomer. Yet England was not at the 74 & 78 World Cup and not at the 84 European Championships. Why? When we had the best teams in Europe, could we not actually get our national team near the big prizes? Some would say just like today?

It really is simple. Each of those successful club teams was a mix of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh players, the teams were not English at all just as they are not ‘English’ today.

Our best performance at a World Cup since 1966 in my view was in Spain 82. Most people will quote 1970 or more likely 1990, as it is fresher in the memory and everyone remembers a tearful Gazza and Pavarotti. In 1982, we went with zero expectation. Zero. It was the first World Cup I could attend, and I went hell for leather to get there. England had a good manager, Ron Greenwood, and a brilliant skipper, Bryann Robson. We/he scored the fastest ever goal in World Cup football (37 seconds) against a team we fully expected to beat us, France. We won 3-1 and then went on to beat Czechoslovakia 2-0 and Kuwait 1-0, I remember the Kuwait management taking their team off in protest when ‘er scored. We played all of our games in Bilbao, and if there were more than 2000 England fans in Spain, I would be surprised. We had a ball, but were treated like scum by the police and locals, lived in fear of our lives but the trip and the camraderie was unbelievable. The next round was a weird round ronin of three games. We drew Spain and Germany, drew 0-0 with both and went out on goal difference. France went on to the semi finals to lose an epic to Germany, indeed Battison lost his teeth in an epic fashion to Harald Schumacher and Italy won the cup again after 44 years or so. Indeed a superb French side came to their peak 2 years later and lifted the Euorpean Championships in 84 when we failed to qualify, and 3rd place in 86.

We actually went to Mexico with more hope only to have an absolute nightmare. Again as was the custom in those days we played all our games as seeds in one city, Monterrey and lost our opener 1-0 to Portugal. Facing Morocco in the second round, we did an Algeria and drew 0-0. Ray Wilkins got sent off in one of the games and was replaced thereafter ny Peter Reid and Bryann Robson’s shoulder also went. Faced with a win or bust game to get out of the group, we beat Poland 3-0 at half time. Second round meant moving to Mexico City and our opponents were little known Paraguay again beaten 3-0 and we then stayed in Mexico City for the quarter finals against Argentina. You all know what happened next!

Euorpean Championships in 88 were another mess, which goes to prove that we can’t beat the elite. Losing 1-0 to Republic of Ireland, 3-1 to Holland and 3-0 to Russia confirmed how poor we had become.

The modern legend of Italia 90 saw us based in Caligari the capital of Sardinia. It started with a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland, during which there was an electric storm, after which the English press demanded that we were brought home, such was the team’s performance deemed ‘disgraceful’. We outplayed the European Champions Holland, who we had lost 3-1 to in that tournament, but could only draw 0-0, I remember Pearce scored a goal at the end which was disallowed as the ball went in direct from an indirect free kick and Gazza did a Cruyff down the left to everyone’s wonderment. The final game saw a change of tactics brought about by the players, whereby Mark Wright joined the back four to create a back five, swept everything up in front of him and scored the vital goal to beat Egypt 1-0 and sneak through. Second round saw us in Bologna to play a tidy Belgian side. That was an epic, us winning 1-0 with a goal in the 120th and last minute of the game. We were lucky that night given that Belgium’s Jan Cuelemanns had a good goal ruled offside. Onwards to Naples to play everyone’s faces that year, Cameroon. Two penalties led the way for a narrow 3-2 and the semi inTurin. Again everyone knows the story that night. One abiding memory for me was watching the West German subs warm up before the game and thinking to myself ‘they are all bigger, stronger, fitter than is and all of them can trap a ball easily and move it. Oh dear, oh dear!

The euphoria of Italia 90 was driven by the same press who wanted the team home after the opener. Bobby Robson, who I had seen personally hounded by the hacks whilst we were staying in the same hotel as him and coach Don Howe, was elevated to mythical status and legends were born. The fact was we had not beaten a front line top 8 team, just like in 86.

The completely briliant FA decided to appoint Graham ‘do I not like that’ Taylor as we coincidentally entered another barren spell – an appalling Euro 92 campaign in Sweden followed by non qualification for USA 94.

Those idiots woke up in time for Euro 96 which needed no qualification in any case as we were at home, and Terry Venables took a decent England team to another semi final and another defeat by Germany. We just don’t seem to beat anyone of any substance when we have to, ie once we get into the knock out stages. Ok, a brilliant perfomance against a strong Holland team did stand out, but ultimately we do not win against the big teams. France 98, another manager (Hoddle) more press revelations (faith healing) and another early exit to a big team, our friends Argentina again. The story just goes on and on. Holland & Belgium in 2000 saw us take a wholly undeserved 2-0 lead in Eindhoven against a superb Portugal who went on to beat us 3-2, giving us a proper footballing lesson just like the Germans did in Bloemfontein last Sunday. A 1-0 win agaisnt a terrible German side was the only bright spot as we lost to Romania (again) and went home before progressing.

Japan in 2002 saw a far better approach under Eriksson. A draw with Sweden and Nigeria (both of who were decent teams) left us needing a result against Argentina and we got it courtesy of Beckham’s penalty. The siege on our goal in the second half could not reverse the half time lead and we progressed into the second round, dismissing a handy Denmark 3-0 (again like Poland 16 years before, all over at half time). Then back to type losing a quarter final against Brazil, who we never beat when it matters. The press slated Sven for not attacking Brazil when they went down to 10 men, something I felt was harsh at the time and harsh today. Brazil went on to win it. Just like Argentina did in 86 and Germany in 90.

Portugal hosted an expectant England in 2004 for the European championships and again we fell at the quarter finals, to the hosts.

Germany in 2006 was about as good, football wise as this World Cup. Beating Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago and a draw with Sweden, allowed us to sneak past Ecquador. Then we faced Portugal again and lost on penalties, again.

Enter the FA who decided Sven was going to be replaced by Graham Taylor II, Steve McLaren and we predictably failed to qualify again for the European Championships in Switzerland and Austria. That was no big deal as we never do anything at European Championships, there are no easy teams from Oceania, Asia or Africa to beat or draw, instead they are all savvy European teams who work out how we play and how not to lose against us.

So you see our expectations are unrealistic. We have not beaten any team of real significance in a knock out game since 1966. Instead we have been beaten by Germany 5 times, Argentina twice, Brazil once and Portugal twice. Given Portugal are not one of the top teams down the years, it goes to show that if we draw Brazil, Argentina or Germany in a knock out match we lose. Who have we really beaten in World Cups or European Championships when it matters? Spain is the only top nation and that was on penalties.

So what can England do to change this? Indeed can they change? Maybe ditching the arrogance and accepting we are not world beaters is a start. Rebuild from the top down and bottom up. If England are not careful they will get dealt the same fate as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland whereby those nations have slipped down the FIFA and UEFA rankings so far that qualification for major tournaments becomes harder and harder and ultimately highly unlikely.

Indeed is it time to bury the hatchet, take inspiration from the seventies and build a Great Britain team after all we have done rather well at the Olympics recently by ‘backing winning sports’ with resource and claiming gold in cycling, rowing and sailing. One GB team would be stronger as the sum
rather than the parts. National investment would be needed, but borrowing the key lessons, processes and approaches of the gold standard Olympic teams would be radical. It would mean we could also enter an Olympic team and use that as a springboard for youth, alongside the UEFA and FIFA youth tournaments. Obviously this would not happen, given that all of the home nations have self interest geared normally around money and jobs for the boys, but surely it would improve the collective standing of British teams?

The FA could even be nationalised and receive lottery funding to produce results by investing in infrastructure independently of the mercenaries and bottom line focused Premier League. It seems that the Premier League’s relationship with the FA nowadays is somewhat tenuous so why don’t the FA look to break away completely and choose non Premier League players for England, given that they may be hungrier for the shirt and the prestige. Who knows, in time, a Premier League with the same 20 teams season in and season out would be even more impotent. The FA could merge with the Football League or at least co-operate and work for the benefit of the NATIONAL game rather than the club game. This would build bridges with legions of increasingly older and disenfranchised fans, vital if the game is going to have a life outside of Sky. Before we all howl about the Premier League being the best in the world think about it. Only 4 teams have won it and one of those was Blackburn. The only team who look like they may break into the current monopoly is cash rich Man City, hoping ape former also rans Chelsea, who used to be much like Citeh. Fans are tired of the boredom, tired of the same teams, tired of the expense, tired at the stark commercialism and exploitation. Just look at the mess the ‘owners’ of Manchester United and Liverpool have created with their models based on ‘leveraged debt’ and ‘brand building’.

And finally, the press/media simply have too much power and influence. Despite few of the lead journalists ever having kicked a ball in their life, many relish the role of kingmakers. In this World Cup, Henry Winter and the rest of the press corps always wanted a 4-5-1 system and many punters, players and pundits agreed after the Algeria game that a change to this system felt right. Capello was too stubborn to change. But Winter, Paul Hayward and Oliver Holt are also big friends with ‘Ashley’, ‘Lamps’ and ‘JT’ as they are referred to by those three and the rest of the hacks who write for the daily newspapers and report for Sky. Indeed they all have contracts to appear on Sky every Sunday morning to dissect and give us their ‘inside track’ on the Premier League and football in general. Sky are the main revenue source for the Premier League and international football gets in the way of the ever so precious Premier League. Indeed Sky is not a World Cup broadcaster and probably hates not to be officially involved. Hardly surprising that the Premier League decide to issue their fixtures for next season shortly after the World Cup started. It is almost as if the Premier League acts like a spoilt brat any time football is mentioned and the Premier League misses out. Between the broadcasters, the critics and the producers of the entertainment there is a cosy little relationship one that maybe should not be trusted by the ordinary club and/or country fan. After all, it rarely seems critical does it?

To close off I will leave you with this thought. In my day job I get involved with politicans and members of Her Majesty’s. Government and was speaking to one prominent MP a while ago about targetted tax breaks for video games production in the UK. I suggested that we invest in the way that other winning nations have done, such as Canada, France and Australia. I also suggested that we need to join up the education system with industry. We the games industry need more maths and science students and the country needs more achievement in those basic subjects. If it were football maths and science would be tackling and passing.

The MP said to me that ‘picking winners’ within industry was not fair and not sustainable. Instead we should look to ‘winning’ examples of the free market such as the Premier League and Manchester United. I said that was all very well, but a completely free market such as the Premier League, you can end up with disenfranchised customers (fans) and a very weak national side, unless grass roots investment was attended to alongside targetted help to build a national team. Also just look at the mess at Manchester United, now free marketeers and business has taken over. Much like the Premier League, the video games industry is in good shape. Dig deeper however and you find a tale of lost and wasted talent,British talent, cut adrift and sometimes not even spotted, by market forces. Where we once led the way, we are lucky to follow and pick scraps from the floor, because we don’t learn and we don’t do what other nations do.

Cast your eye over to the Bundesliga or the Spanish league and you will see targetted efforts by national associations to build a winning and sustainable national team. None of the current German squad play outside of the German league. 20 out of 23 players in the Spanish squad play at home.

Back in 1998 Germany lost their World Cup second round to Croatia. It was a shock. Two years later Germany were beaten 1-0 by England and did not progress from the group stage of Euro 2000, a year later England beat them 5-1 in Munich in the World Cup 02 qualifier. Germany set about a root and branch review, they invested in youth and coaching. People like Franz Beckenbauer run the game and provide the vision and the voice, not some businessman with a suit as seems to be the case in our leagues and set up. The results of this are starting to be seen and we certainly had a lesson thrown at us last week in Bloemfontein. Not many stars, let alone superstars, but plenty of strength, skill, pace and committment. And youth. I doubt their players are discussing their cribs, Baby Bentleys and Wags.

Proper investment and leadership could result in an English or even radically a British football team doing well in ten years time. The only things that stand between that are money, the Premier League, the media and of course time. The kids are out there, can someone with a football heritage start taking them and us fans seriously, please?

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