A wake-up call for England

For the first time since 1996, the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals will be bereft of any English challenge, writes Ayon Sengupta.

In football, England (as a country) has failed to produce anything spectacular (a sole World Cup victory in 1966 does not augur well for the inventor of the modern game) and much like its expansionist policy of the 18th century (the East India Company flexed its muscles across the globe) it has been the privateers (clubs in this case) who has held the Union Jack high worldwide.

The mass appeal of the English Premier League has engulfed the globe and English clubs can surely boast of equally fanatical fans in the streets of Manchester as well as in the seashores of the lovely fishing hamlet of Mamallapuram, near Chennai.

Teenaged boys are seen here sporting United jerseys (though not the real one) and will surely give you an in-depth lecture on Sir Alex’s tactical acumen while the names of Indian football players fail to ring any bells in their hippocampus region. Even the mega rich cricket stars do not find a space there! The perfect mix of legacy, allure, the best international players, ideal marketing strategy, pulsating on-pitch action and off the ball drama has managed to keep fans glued universally and has made the EPL one of the most watched yearly sporting spectacle. But this canvas of success does not paint the true picture about the robust health of the English game.

For the first time since 1996 (Blackburn Rovers just won one of its six group games then) the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals will be bereft of any English challenge. And if not for Chelsea’s heroics, against the odds, the story would have been similar last year too. Thus rightly, after failing to sneak past Bayern, despite a brilliant fight back at the Allianz Arena, Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, declared that the collective failure of all four Premier League sides to reach the last eight represented a wake-up call for the English game.

Although, missing out on the first European club competition in 1956 (because of the ill-conceived stand of Football League secretary Alan Hardaker), English clubs were soon dominating European competition and Celtic became the first British club to win the title in 1967, before United made it two in a row in 1968. Clubs from the island nation brought back the coveted trophy a record six times in succession from 1977 to 1982 (Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa). But the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985 pushed the English club teams out of Europe till 1991 and after some mediocre years, Manchester United finally won the crown again in 1999. It has been a steady graph since, with English clubs providing eight finalists and three winners till 2011-12.

This was a concerted period of English dominance, a blissful time where the performances of its club sides were steady and sustained, bringing back the halcyon days of the late seventies and early eighties. Since the fortunes of football teams are always subject to ebb and flow, there’s no reason not to put one’s faith on an English upswing soon, but the worry lines are surely there on the surface. Over the last few summers, there has been a systematic drain of the best Premier League talents. The exodus has been usually in the direction of Spain.

In 2007, Thierry Henry quit the Gunners to join Barcelona and Cesc Fabreagas (2011) and Alex Song (2012) followed suit. An absorbing 2009 EPL title race ended with Manchester United and Liverpool losing vital players to a refurbishing Real Madrid.

Cristiano Ronaldo, scorer of 118 United goals, and Xabi Alonso, the architect of Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool, joined Florentino Perez’s second galactico experiment. Unfortunately, though known to be big spenders, the English giants have failed to address this issue or sufficiently shore up their resources since then. (Manchester City did manage to pry away stars like Juan Mata, Sergio Aguero and David Silva from Spain but their inexperience in Europe has stopped the side from having any immediate effect on the competition.)

While sides in Germany, Italy and of course Spain have paid enough attention in nurturing home-grown talent, reaping the benefits of a systemised youth development programme, England has been slow to catch up.

The FA’s St George’s Park National Football Centre was inaugurated only in October 2012, while Germany overhauled its youth development system way back in 2002, where all 36 clubs in the two Bundesliga divisions are obliged to have a centrally regulated academy. Twelve players in each intake have to be eligible to play for Germany.

A survey says that England with 2,769 licensed coaches has only one UEFA-qualified coach for every 812 people playing the game. (2.25 million people play football in England.) Spain, the World Cup winner, has 408,134 players and 23, 995 coaches, giving a ratio of 1:17. In Italy the ratio is 1:48, in France 1:96 and Germany 1:150. The statistics obviously shows that budding English players start from a position of disadvantage.

The over dependence on hired guns has also not helped the English cause and the introduction of UEFA’s Fairplay policy from the next season will further increase the problems of big-spending English clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. While the money-power of EPL clubs draw in the best of the world, the gruelling and very physical nature of the game rarely makes it eye catching. It’s usually a hot-blooded affair with tackles flowing in. This intensity of play (which makes it attractive to every audience) has an adverse affect, often leaving English sides short of breath and ideas in European adventures. Tactically, too, English teams (apart from Arsenal or the new-look Chelsea) have failed to come to terms with the changing dynamics of world football, still relying on marauding full-backs, long balls and not sleek passing and positional play.

So the problems are in plenty, and English football needs to find answers soon.

1999-2000: quarter-finalists 2; semi-finalists 0

2000-01:quarter-finalists 3; semi-finalists 1

2001-02: quarter-finalists 2; semi-finalists 1

2002-03: quarter-finalists 1; semi-finalists: 0

2003-04: quarter-finalists 2; semi-finalists 1

2004-05:quarter-finalists 2; semi-finalists 2

2005-06: quarter-finalists 1; semi-finalists 1

2006-07: quarter-finalists 3; semi-finalists 3

2007-08: quarter-finalists 4; semi-finalists 3

2008-09: quarter-finalists 4; semi-finalists 3

2009-10: quarter-finalists 2; semi-finalists 0

2010-11: quarter-finalists 3; Semi-finalists 1

2011-12: quarter-finalists 1; semi-finalists 1