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.