England will never win the (Soccer) World Cup

(As you can tell from the title, this post has nothing to do with SQL Server or running a business. I’ve put it here because if you can’t write a random, opinionated piece on your blog where can you write it?)

The England football team didn’t win the 2006 FIFA World Cup, they also didn’t win any of the previous 24(?) major tournaments that they’ve entered. Despite this, England’s lack of triumph has been the biggest news of the year here in England where several hundred journalists and similar numbers of radio and television reporters have been in Germany covering the English participation in the event. This time our ‘defeat’ was especially unexpected because we had slightly better players than usual. To blame, and blame is very much the tone of *all* of the coverage the following reasons have been put forward:

  1. The manager Sven Yoran Erickson. This is such a big category we need to break it down into sub-blame categories:
  • He’s foreign
  • He doesn’t show enough passion on the touchline.
  • He used the wrong formation.
  • He chose a very inexperienced player as number 23 in his squad rather than a more experienced player. (11 players are required for a soccer team)
  • He doesn’t shout enough.
  • He had an affair with an ex-weather girl and another affair with the PA of his boss. Although he isn’t married, he was unfit, morally, to be England manager.
  • He was tricked into flying to Dubai where a reporter pretending to be an oil sheik got him to say that English football suffers from corruption and that he didn’t want to work in England past this summer. Therefore he isn’t loyal enough to be England manager.
  • He’s bald (actually I made that up but you get the point)

2. The female partners of the players put them off in ways that no one dares quite articulate.

3. The referees don’t officiate like they do here in England.

4. The referees don’t like us/ deliberately work against us/ etc.

5. The players are over-paid, pampered buffoons who didn’t try.

6. The tournament was fixed in favour of the Brazilians*.

7. The captain, David Beckham, is too good looking, is washed up, has an annoying wife, etc.

8. Player X didn’t play well enough.

*The Brazilians went out at the same stage as the English.

Most of these reasons are obviously silly but the choice of formation is a potentially fair criticism, since this is something that can win or lose matches. However since, the formation used by the two finalists was also the one used by England it is hard to believe that this is reason enough to explain our “unexpected” defeat. An extension of the argument is that English based players can’t play this new formation since they aren’t used to it, sadly this is equally true of the Italians who ended up winning the whole thing.

On top of the professional pundits, numerous phone-in programs have given ample voice to the spite of the English people who, with the encouragement of their host, have vented their spleen in extremely personal terms on all ‘to blame’.  

There were two reasons that weren’t put forward by any of the highly paid and trained pundits or any of the phone-ins I tuned into. Hence the point of this blog:

  1. You shouldn’t expect to win very often when there are over a 100 teams entering a competition that takes place every 4 years.
  2. Creating a culture of criticism, fear and blame makes it impossible to win. It is the press, TV, radio and other pundits who create this atmosphere.

Now I know that the reason that England don’t normally win is because statistically you can’t expect to do so very often. However experiencing the bile and spite this time leads me to the conclusion that we will never win while English media’s culture is to obsess over allocating blame.

While it is undoubtedly true that having deeply gifted individuals in a team can help it succeed, this is of secondary importance to creating a culture of greatness. It is impossible to win with great individuals who work in a culture of blame and fear, and common to win with good individuals who share a culture of greatness. This is a fairly contentious point but ask any soccer fan to name the manager and 5 team members of the team that won the European Championship in 2004 – you’ll find most can name none or at most one or two – yet that team, Greece, won Football’s second major prize. While none of them were household names together they formed a great team.

Imagine before you turned up to work you read in the paper, heard on the radio and watched on the TV that you were bad at various aspects of your job. Imagine this happened every day. Imagine that previous incumbents of your job were still being publicly blamed for events decades ago. Wouldn’t your attitude change from one of trying to do something wonderful to avoiding making mistakes?

In the match where the English team were eliminated the team played for 2 hours without letting a goal in, despite having their best player sent off and suffering an injury to their inspirational captain. They avoiding making a mistake (letting in any goals) but unfortunately they didn’t score during normal time, in which case the match was decided by a penalty shoot out. The Portuguese goalkeeper who saved 3 English penalties in the shootout that decided England’s exit, said he could see the fear in the eyes of the players – a strange comment to make but apt given the blame and spite that is heaped on all those that “fail”. Decades after the event, pundits still blame those that have missed on a previous occasion when England came close.

If you want wonderful things to happen you have to accept that you are going to experience a lot of failures. Conversely, the only absolutely guaranteed way to avoid failure is to do nothing. Failure and success are the same side of a coin whose flip side is inaction. I’d argue that if avoiding blame is your top priority then you will be cursed by mediocrity for similar reasons. This is the fate of the England football team.

How could this be avoided? Imagine if the TV shows had lauded the wonderful moments of skill rather than criticising the mistakes, imagine if the vicious English tabloids had bombarded the referees before games by beaming pictures of the other team true character (like this one from the eventual finalists). Imagine teaching all the English fans who attended games how to goad their opponents in the correct language, imagine distributing cards so that fans could hold them aloft to spell ‘cheat’ in Portuguese. Imagine if every English player had felt like to win would be wonderful but to lose trying would be glorious?

When the fans and media behave like winners we might have a team that wins too.