English Football.

The National Team Sinks but the Premiership Sails On

Some of the best teams in the world are English but the national side still did badly in Euro 2000. Why was it? We take a look at the current shape of English footie.

English football was fairly humiliated at the Euro 2000 European Championship finals played in Holland and Belgium. 'Fairly' in the sense of 'quite a lot', and also in the sense that it was only right that they should go out since they simply did not deserve to progress to the next round, let alone win the title. England just weren't good enough. Although they scored six goals in three games - which isn't bad - they twice threw away leads to be beaten 3-2 by both Portugal and Romania.

Excellent players

English football is full of excellent players: David Beckham, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes to name just a few. But at the moment its national side just doesn't seem to gel as a team. Who is at fault? The manager, Kevin Keegan, once a footballing superstar? Certainly substituting Michael Owen in all three Euro 2000 games was a questionable decision. Or is it the players, who need the support of their colleagues at club level to get the best out of them? These teammates are not always English, of course. Indeed, Premiership (or Premier League) teams like Manchester United (Man Utd), Liverpool and Arsenal are full of overseas talent that provides the English lads with lots of excellent service. Chelsea, for example, never has more than two or three English footballers in the side at any one time. It might as well be called Chelsea Italia or Chelsea Paris.

Perhaps the lack of foreign talent on the national team is why England reverts too often to the so-called 'English' style - kicking the ball as far as possible upfield and hoping for the best (sometimes it does work, of course), or crossing the ball for headers when passing on the ground would be more effective. In the process they simply lose the ball too often. Yet the English team hasn't always been as unimpressive as at Euro 2000. In the 1990 World Cup they got through to the semi-finals and lost only in the penalty shoot-out to Germany. Again in Euro 1996 in England they were impressive as they got through to the semis, only to get knocked out by - yes, you've guessed it - the Germans, also on penalties.

Too many 'buts'

More recently, in the World Cup held in France in 1998, they got through to the quarter-finals where they faced Argentina. Their two rising stars Michael Owen and David Beckham (married to Posh Spice of the Spice Girls) both scored fantastic goals, Owen dribbling past three defenders and shooting past the helpless goalie, and Beckham scoring from one of his trademark free-kicks. But - and there always seems to be a 'but' - David Beckham foolishly responded to a nasty foul on him by kicking his Argentine opponent, for which he got a red card and an early bath, and England faced a tough time if they were going to win the match.

In actual fact, Tottenham Hotspur's Sol Campbell scored what could have been the winning goal, only for it to be disallowed. As every English fan would tell you, it was wrongly disallowed. That wasn't a foul, ref! And so they lost the match. Did they lose on penalties again? The blame for England's early exit, however, was laid by both the British press and public on David Beckham. The hate campaign against him was so intense that he seriously considered leaving English football for Spain or Italy. Thankfully, Man Utd's hugely successful and influential manager Sir Alex Ferguson stood by him and Becks answered the jibes by playing even more brilliantly for Man Utd and for England again.

Female fans

But the emotions aroused by England's early exit that year show just how crazy British people are about the national game. And it's not just the blokes. In 1990 in particular, a huge number of women were converted to the game, glued to the television like the lads as soccer viewing figures rose to nearly 20 million in the semis. It was no longer just "eleven men running around a field after a bag of leather filled with air". It was about skill, passion, motion and emotion. Paul Gascoigne almost became a national hero. The streets were empty, the pubs full. In 1996 and 1998 it was the same story. TV comedy programmes and games around football became prime-time viewing in the 1990s.

We have to remember, of course, that England is not the entire United Kingdom, and the UK is not just England. The problem is that we have one country - the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - but four national sides: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Man Utd's brilliant left-winger Ryan Giggs, for example, plays for Wales. How desperately the English team needs him! The former Man Utd centre forward, Welshman Mark Hughes, could have led the England attack. Scotland has produced a string of hugely successful players over the years. Put the four national sides together, which is done in the Olympics for example, and we could have a world-beating team!

Speed and passion

Closer to home, even if we can't beat the rest of Europe at the national level, most countries think the English Premiership is the best league in Europe. More and more foreign players want to play in England, and it's not just because the wages are good. English sides are famous for the speed and passion with which they play. Last season (1999-2000) Man Utd scored nearly a hundred goals in the league alone. But there are other high scorers, too: Leeds, Arsenal, Liverpool, for example. A newcomer to the Premiership last season, Bradford City, just escaped relegation to the First Division (which used to be the second division) but they still scored lots of goals. Unfortunately, though, they let in quite a few as well!

John Edmondson