England U-21 coach Gareth Southgate has more than a passing familiarity with the agony of tournament soccer: In 1996, Southgate’s shoot-out miss eliminated England from the first European Championship played on English soil. But at least Euro ’96, the last time England looked capable of winning an international competition, produced some genuinely inspirational moments. England lost in the semi-finals – but it lost heroically.
On Wednesday, Southgate led the U-21s – a motley assortment of established Premier League players (Harry Kane, Danny Ings) and up-and-coming prospects (Nathan Redmond, Ruben Loftus-Cheek) – to a profoundly unheroic tournament exit. England’s 3-1 loss to Italy, which sent the team tumbling out of the group stage of the U-21 European Championships, will be remembered as a particularly pathetic collapse in the history of a national program that has raised pathetic collapses to a gruesome art.
There are clear on-field explanations for England’s underwhelming performance. Injuries deprived the team of its calmest center back and its most creative attacker. Ings and Kane, who both played surprisingly well in last season’s Premier League, missed chances they usually convert. Against Italy, a group of highly paid professional athletes failed to mark opponents in the penalty area.
But England’s real problems have little to do with the shortcomings of this particular squad. The national team’s pattern of failure is rooted in the cultural and institutional weaknesses of English soccer.
On Wednesday, former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp claimed that young English players simply “don’t work hard enough” to compete with their European peers. “They’re the first off the training pitch,” Redknapp said. “They walk off, thinking, ‘I’ve got a three- or four-year contract. I’ve made it.’” Redknapp’s comments carry a whiff of the reflexive “kids these days” negativity that has characterized some of the worst soccer punditry of the last two decades. But the recent off-field antics of Jack Grealish (found drunk in the street) and Raheem Sterling (photographed smoking a hookah), as well as the sheer idiocy of the Leicester City juniors who starred in a racist sex tape during their team’s Asian tour, certainly suggest that some members of the next generation lack discipline and common sense.
Earlier this week, Guardian columnist Amy Lawrence identified another glaring issue: Not a single current England international plays club soccer overseas. Football Association Chairman Greg Dyke has pushed for the Premier League to introduce a quota system designed to increase playing time for homegrown talent. But Dyke would be better advised to encourage young English players to move abroad and experience different styles of play. “Not only do they better themselves technically, playing with and against a higher caliber of player,” Lawrence wrote. “They also have to develop personally to undertake the many challenges of living, working and integrating successfully away from home.”
The U-21 circuit promotes a similar skillset, exposing inexperienced prospects to high-level competition in unfamiliar surroundings. The tournaments teach players how to stay sane during the long hours between games and training sessions and allow coaches to sort the genuine stars from the overrated no-hopers. At the 2010 World Cup, Germany reached the semi-finals with one of its most exciting performances in years. The team relied largely on a group of talented youngsters – Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer, Thomas Muller – who had learned to play together the year before, at the 2009 U-21 Euros. At last summer’s World Cup in Brazil, Ozil, Khedira, Muller and Neuer led Germany to the title.
But despite Germany’s example, the FA still doesn’t take U-21 soccer very seriously. Phil Jones, Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Raheem Sterling were all eligible for Southgate’s U-21 squad, and they all would have benefitted from tournament practice before next summer’s European Championships in France. But Southgate elected to leave them behind. Yesterday, Dan Ashworth, the FA’s director of elite development, defended the decision, arguing that full internationals shouldn’t compete at the youth level. “It’s like being a first-team player and asking them to come back and play in the U-21s,” Ashworth said. “It’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”
Ashworth eventually conceded that “the debate will be reopened now.” But that’s exactly the sort of half-hearted promise English soccer officials have been making for years. The FA has a long history of self-defeating parochialism; since the early 1900s, the organization has consistently ignored innovations pioneered by its international peers. Former England striker Gary Lineker, who left his home country in the early ‘90s to play in Spain and Italy, called the FA’s approach to this summer’s U-21 tournament “exasperatingly amateurish.” There’s nothing remotely heroic about a tournament collapse driven by administrative folly.