After England’s successful World Cup qualifying campaign, the dust is now starting to settle, and thoughts are beginning to intrude along the lines of: Oh, Christ, spare us another World Cup finals performance like the last one. It’s a memory just too depressing for words as highly-talented yet grossly over-paid young players sulked around the pitch as if they’d forgotten exactly how lucky they were to be there at all.
The fanatical travelling army which follows England everywhere were shocked into spells of stunned silence at the lassitude and sheer incompetence of some of their so-called heroes in an England team made up, as is usual in these money-mad times, of multi-millionaires, millionaires, and perhaps two or three of the merely very rich. The fans turned to each other and asked, what the bleedin’ hell is going on? Well, situation normal, isn’t it? What a load of overpaid rubbish. We’ll stay at home and watch it on the box another time. It goes without saying though, that the fans will always be there.
With the money in the game, the long-established infrastructure, and the size of our nation relative, say, to a country like Holland which produces excellence as a matter of course, we should be doing better in these massive pan-global tournaments. But however easily, or even gloriously we manage to get there, it always seems to go wrong – at least it has so far this century. The relative glory days of Mexico ’86, Italia ’90 or even England ’96 are a long time ago now. Something is rotten in the state of England. What are the missing ingredients?
Allow me to propose an old-fashioned answer: Pride and Passion. Those two words sum up the edge that England teams, maybe lacking in the technical gifts of continental and latin american players, used to possess; attributes that used to see us through against higher levels of skill and flair. These are the qualities our national team has shown too little of over the years, qualities the fans still possess in abundance.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the players who represent England are lacking totally in either commodity, but I would venture the opinion that they is no longer the over-riding motivation. Money – oodles of it – always looms far too large within the game. To clear the players’ heads, to rid them of competing considerations and leave them focused on the job in hand, to nurture the mindset that they are representing their country, and carrying the hopes of millions, I would propose – quite seriously – that we abandon henceforth the practice of paying players to play for England.
This is not a new idea, not by any means. Before World War Two, players selected for England were invited to choose a match fee OR a souvenir medal – not both. They invariably opted for the medal – and this in an era when professional football wages were capped at a level not far above those of a skilled worker. But pride and passion motivated them.
Nowadays of course, footballers earn a vast amount, and some would say good luck to them – but do they really need to be paid over and above their club contracts for what is still a signal honour? The playing employees of Liverpool, Man U, Man City, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal and the rest pull down many, many times the average wage and exist on an entirely different plane to those who shell out their hard-earned to watch them perform. How does this affect the way we see them?
As things stand, the emotional distance between the crowd and the players is magnified by a patently enormous gulf in financial status, which breeds resentment among the fans when things aren’t going well on the field (look at him, fifty grand a week, and he couldn’t trap a bag of cement). Would the frequently toxic nature of that crowd/team relationship not be improved if the players were really playing for the shirt and the cap, and nothing else?
Removal of monetary rewards would not be universally popular among the players – but might this not help sort out the committed from the opportunist, and thus – to risk an archaic phrase – engender a more positive team spirit?
There would be no unpalatable need for the FA to profit by the players’ noble sacrifice. The money that now goes on match fees and bonuses should instead be diverted to a charity of the players’ choice – and would this not only provide an additional incentive to win, but also enhance the team’s good-guy credentials?
They might feel, deep inside, that they’re a cut above the opposition – who are shamelessly, brazenly, doing it for the money. It might even give them that crucial edge. Success is, after all, about the steady accumulation of marginal gains.
No match fees or any bonus, not a red cent – just an international cap. No taint of lucre in the motivations of the players, who would in any case be set for life even if they never earned another penny. No charge of “mercenary footballers” from a disgruntled crowd – rather it would be: well done lads, you’re doing it for England and glory. If you didn’t win – well, we know you were giving of your best, for love of the shirt and charitable causes. Think of that. Wouldn’t our England players rather be loved and admired, than just that tiny bit richer?
Can there really be a better incentive than national pride and sheer altruism, uncluttered by the financial bottom line? Wouldn’t there just possibly be a whole new dynamic around the currently unfancied England setup that might even take us onwards and upwards? Am I being hopelessly idealistic or even naïve?
Well, perhaps I am – but I would humbly suggest that it’s got to be a better way, and is certainly worth a try.