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England fail to shine yet again

Why country must come first in English football

Elliott Florence [email protected]

“What we need to do to make some sense of this is, once the dust has settled, to have a long, hard, cold, unemotional look at this and work out why a tournament that was launched with so much hope, as far as England were concerned, has ended in so much disappointment.” Sport minister Hugh Robertson, after England’s 4-1 defeat to Germany at the 2010 World Cup

With the Premier League back in full swing, it is easy to overlook the two England matches taking place next month.

Six points from the European Championship qualifiers against Bulgaria and Wales should put Fabio Capello’s team in sight of a place in the finals held in Poland and Ukraine in 2012.

England are in the box seat in Group G, despite edgy draws against Montenegro and Switzerland at Wembley, and hopes of ending years of hurt will again build should qualification be achieved.

But is there any cause for optimism? It is only a little over a year since England were sent packing from a World Cup, humbled and humiliated by a younger, more vibrant Germany team in Bloemfontein. Promises were made in the aftermath and “root and branch” inquiries were demanded, but has anything changed in the past 12 months?

The answer, it would appear, is no. The Under-20 World Cup, completed last weekend in Colombia, could have provided a watershed, but the team representing England was far from full strength and exited in the second round, losing 1-0 to Nigeria, having failed to score a goal in four matches.

There were 36 players who were eligible to compete for England but who were not present because their clubs did not release them, a fact that hung heavily on the shoulders of the squad’s coach, Brian Eastwick. “If you look at the results, you can say it was a failure,” Eastwick said after the team’s exit. “The only way to change that is to change regulations to make the clubs release their players.”

It is a request likely to fall on deaf ears. England’s policy of club first, country second is entrenched, much to the bemusement of rival nations.

“I don’t think English teams give enough respect to the fact this is a World Cup,” said Walter Perazzo, the Argentina coach, before the teams drew 0-0 in the group stages. “It’s normal that you don’t always have the players you want in a squad, but England have a lot of players missing and I feel absolutely for the England coach.”

The difference between England and other countries is stark. In Spain, Argentina and Brazil, it is mandatory for clubs to release players for international tournaments of all age groups. These countries, often contenders at major senior tournaments, see these events as stepping stones to greater things, providing players with experience that is invaluable a few years down the line.

Take the Spain midfielder Andrés Iniesta, for example. Seven years before he scored the winning goal in the World Cup final in South Africa, the Barcelona playmaker was in the Spain team that finished runners-up in the World Youth Championship in 2003.

In 2005, that tournament was rebranded as the Under-20 World Cup, and it has since been lit up by players who have gone on to dominate the world stage. The golden boot winner that year was Lionel Messi and, two years later, Sergio Aguero, Manchester City’s latest big-money recruit, was the top scorer.

No England player, however, has made a major mark on the tournament. The 2003 squad contained James Milner, a regular for England in South Africa, while the 1993 squad, who finished third, had Nicky Barmby and Nicky Butt among their number. Yet there are many others who sink without trace from the professional ranks soon after representing England at this level.

It would be interesting to see how many of the England squad who earlier this year reached the quarter-finals of Under-17 World Cup in Mexico, before losing to Germany, will make the grade. At that age, English clubs appear less reluctant to withhold their players from tournaments, but that attitude changes as they get older and closer to the first team.

With the Premier League looking after its own, it was perhaps a surprise that England had a team at all in Colombia. England’s Under-21 manager, Stuart Pearce, was there to help Eastwick with a squad that had qualified by reaching the semi-finals of the European Under-19 Championship in 2010 but was shorn of its big names.

Jack Wilshere, the highly rated midfielder, was one of those who could have been in Colombia, despite the fact that he has been fast-tracked to the senior England squad. However, the 49 games he played for Arsenal last season meant that his club manager, Arsène Wenger, was desperate to protect him from the risk of burnout.

Summer is seen as a time for rest and there was little chance that Wilshere would be part of the Under-21 squad that flopped in this year’s European Championship, let alone be picked for the Under-20 squad in Colombia. It would have been a surprise if Wilshere had been selected, but there is an argument for saying that if a tournament is deemed good enough for Messi’s development, then why not Wilshere’s?

He is 19 and if he is to be the fulcrum of England’s team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, then it is reasonable to believe that a four-week tournament also in South America, where the pitches are hard and bouncy and the climate is hot and unrelenting, would have stood him, and the nation he plays for, in good stead.

With Wilshere and many of his peers not in Colombia, the focus fell on those there who represented England. On arrival at Medellín airport, the squad was enthusiastically greeted by security guards and a mascot parrot who danced with them in arrivals. Colombia is a country keen to shake off its turbulent past and portray a positive image, and the welcome produced this great footage.

Not only did it give a flavour of Colombians’ zest for a party but it also showed young players yet to be tarnished by wealth and greed. It was a far cry from the stories of players’ boredom that emanated out of the senior squad during the 2010 World Cup – of men uncomfortable away from home, unwilling to mix with locals or explore a different culture, and unable, it seems, to be content to read a book.

Graham Taylor, the former England manager, once said there are two types of international footballer. There is the qualifier player and there is the tournament player, the one who excels when the pressure is on. It is the latter that England require and it is the latter that tournaments such as the one in Colombia help create.

Of those who landed in Medellín, few had top-division experience, despite being on the books of Premier League clubs. Reece Wabara is a Manchester City defender who made his first-team debut as a substitute in the final game of last season against Bolton and is unlikely to be a regular in the coming campaign because of the abundance of riches at the club.

Tottenham’s Adam Smith, currently on loan at Milton Keynes Dons, spent last season at Bournemouth, while Everton midfielder James Wallace was captain of the side relegated from the Football League with Stockport County. Some have begun to make the grade at the top level – full-back Nathan Barker impressed at Aston Villa last season, while midfielder Matt Philips made a goalscoring debut for Blackpool.

Yet none of them would have experienced anything like the atmosphere created by almost 40,000 fans at the Estadio Atanasio Girardot in Medellín when they played Argentina in their second group match.

They performed admirably too, matching their fancied opponents for possession and chances, yet it was difficult for those watching to escape the nagging feeling that, for many, this would be the pinnacle of their careers when it should be just the start.

For others, the competition provided lift-off. Brazil’s production line shows no sign of slowing. The midfielder Oscar had not scored until the final but he then bagged three as Brazil beat Portugal 3-2 after extra time to lift the trophy. The Internacional player opened the scoring with a free-kick and decided the tournament with a sublime lofted finish.

The São Paulo striker Henrique, who scored two of his five goals in the semi-final win over Mexico, also impressed, while his club team-mate Casemiro was at the heart of Brazil’s best attacks. At the back, they were led by the imposing defender Bruno Uvini. Big-money European moves beckon for them all.

Portugal relied much on their defence and did not concede a goal en route to the final, a run that owed much to their captain and centre-back Nuno Reis. For France, Gueïda Fofana was a forceful skipper, driving his team to a 3-2 quarter-final win over Nigeria in the tournament’s best match and shading his team-mate, Chelsea’s lauded midfielder Gaël Kakuta, who was often used as a substitute, in the process. Álvaro Vázquez, who played regularly for Espanyol in La Liga last season, scored five goals for Spain and was another star.

The tournament, which had great media appeal worldwide, barely merited a mention in the UK press. The competition was only likely to penetrate its blinkers if England reached the final.

Bar the airport welcome, there were few stories about the tournament in national newspapers, while the BBC Sport website gave it “news in brief” status.

The tabloids, as ever in summer’s silly season, preferred to speculate repeatedly on the futures of Cesc Fàbregas and Luka Modrić. They were all among the institutions that demanded change after England’s 2010 World Cup exit, but they are among those failing to ensure it happens.

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