It's not been a good year for England's international football team. Of course, this is something that can be stated, quite accurately at the end of most years. It's a recurring problem, the way we always seem to fail to punch our weight in the big tournaments. The World Cup qualifiers this autumn were a case in point.
An over-riding concern, as far as the actual football goes, must be the depressing lack of quality in an England team made up, as usual, of multi-millionaires, millionaires, and perhaps two or three of the merely very rich.
Against San Marino, a motley crew of one lower-league pro and ten part-timers, the pride of England laboured mightily, but showed very little class or penetration, admittedly against opposition whose ambitions stretched no further forward than the halfway line. But still, the glass-half-full brigade will argue, we won by five - and so we did. But it could and should have been better, and we can't just brush aside the question of why it wasn't.
Poland provided a higher class of opponent, but having taken the lead, somewhat fortuitously, England couldn't build on it, couldn't stem the tide of red flowing towards them, and ultimately couldn't hold their lead. Where, we are justified in asking, was the class and composure? Where were the passing skills, why was possession so hard to win and to retain?
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. Something is rotten in the state of England. What are the missing ingredients?
Allow me to propose an old-fashioned answer: Pride and passion.
Now, I'm not suggesting that the players who represent England are lacking totally in either commodity, but I would venture the opinion that this is no longer the over-riding motivation. Money - oodles of it - 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? 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.
Can there 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 embattled England setup that might even take us onwards and upwards? Am I being hopelessly idealistic or even naïve? Perhaps - but I would humbly suggest that it's got to be a better way, and is certainly worth a try.
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