Something is rotten in the state of English football

As the World Cup has shown, there is an enormous chasm between the domestic game and the national side. Much of the blame can be put on the Premier League and its inability to nurture young talent. Ben Chu reports

The dust has settled after the England football team's ignominious ejection from the World Cup in South Africa. But the questions remain. How can what are supposedly some of the best players in the world, coached by one of the most successful managers in the game, fail so badly? How can England, home to the world's richest and most popular league, have such a dismal national side?

Explanations have abounded, from the poor managerial decisions and dictatorial style of Fabio Capello, to internal divisions in the squad, to player fatigue after a gruelling domestic club season. These arguments might be taken more seriously if England's failure was an aberration. But look at the record. England has failed at every major tournament since 1990. The best performance was a semi-final on home ground in the 1996 Euro championship. England has not beaten one of the world's elite teams in the knockout stages of a competition for 14 years. Some point out that France and Italy did even worse than Capello's men in South Africa. Indeed they did. But those countries have a much more successful record in the past 20 years. It is becoming harder to escape the conclusion that the English game has structural problems. And fingers are – quite reasonably – being pointed at the Premier League.

English football is rolling in money. The revenues of the top 20 clubs in England have exploded since the foundation of the elite group in 1992. Over the 2009-10 season, combined revenues reached almost £2bn. But these impressive cash flows have not been a great boon for English footballers. The money has been accompanied by a massive influx of foreign players. Today, only 40 per cent of Premier League squads are English. In the top teams, that proportion falls further. Some say this, in itself, provides one explanation of the rot. The English national side has little depth. And the best English players are often flattered by the brilliant foreign players around them. When the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard play for the national side, without that support, they suddenly look very ordinary.

Perhaps. But it is the financial short-termism of the Premier League that is the fundamental structural problem. English clubs spend their vast revenues on buying players and paying their inflated wages, rather than developing home-grown youngsters. The owners of the top English clubs prefer to buy talent off the shelf rather than nurture it themselves. The contrast with the youth development of the German football system, whose national team thrashed England in South Africa, is stark. Their system works, quite simply, because German clubs invest more in the future. Bundesliga clubs spent €55m (£50m) on their youth academies in 2008-09. This works out as 3.3 per cent of gross revenues. Premier League clubs, by contrast, spend about £30m a year, just 1.5 per cent of revenues. England also has far fewer qualified coaches than Spain, Italy and Germany.

The Football Association has in effect ceded control of youth development to the Premier League. Attempts by the FA to reform the academy system have been blocked by clubs. And the needs of the senior national side are always subordinate to the needs of the clubs. To the extent that tiredness was a problem for England players in South Africa, it is because the bosses of the Premier League have always refused to countenance a winter break for players. Meanwhile, external controls on clubs to help national talent are anathema in England. The contrast with the German system is telling. Bundesliga academies must pick 12 players eligible to play for Germany in each intake. The Premier League has reluctantly agreed a quota for senior squads. But this will be for just eight home-grown players. And "home-grown" in England can mean anyone trained for three years under the age of 21 in England or Wales, including foreign nationals.

The results of all this short-termism and narrow self-interest for the England national team are deeply depressing. Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of development, has admitted that a promising crop of young English prospects is not coming through the ranks. The outlook for the national side after this generation of players retires is bleak indeed.

It is sometimes said that there is a trade-off between having a strong domestic league and a strong national team. But the Premier League is not as strong as its vast revenues suggest. Despite the money pouring in, the financial outlook for many smaller clubs is dire. Hull City's accountants say that the club, which was relegated from the top flight last season, needs to generate a financial surplus of £23m to avoid financial meltdown. West Ham United is £110m in debt. Blackburn Rovers spend 76 per cent of their revenues on player wages. Fourteen of the 20 Premier League clubs ran an operating loss in 2008-09.

Equal distribution of Premier League television revenues is fairer than Spanish and Italian models, where teams negotiate their own deals, giving the bigger clubs a much larger share of the total pot. But the vast spending of the top clubs in the English league – much of it financed by debt or soft loans from sugar daddy investors – means that it is still impossible for smaller teams to compete. This summer, Manchester City, funded by an Abu Dhabi oil sheikh, will spend more than £60m on signing players.

And it is lower down the football tree that the disastrous effect is most evident. Lower league teams take crazy financial risks to reach the top flight. Others must run the risk of bankruptcy simply to stay there, relying on benefactors to subsidise quite staggering losses. To describe this as a league is misleading: this is a free-for-all. And the result is an extreme competitive imbalance both within the Premier League and between the top flight and the lower leagues. Between 1957 and 1972, Derby County rose from the third division to win the old first division league title. Such a success story would be impossible today.

Andy Burnham, a Labour leadership candidate, has come to a stark conclusion. He told the BBC last week that "money has poisoned our national game.... We have put money before the sport and we are reaping the dividends of that". Not everyone agrees. A small cadre of pundits regularly tell us that all is rosy in the garden of English football. The economist Stefan Szymanski from London's Cass Business School is one of them. He argues that the imbalance between English clubs is one of the things that makes the Premier League so exciting for fans. If they didn't like it, they would stop coming to matches, he reasons. In Szymanski's view, the lack of regulation is fine since it is only owners like Chelsea's Roman Abramovich or Portsmouth's Sasha Gaydamak who lose money when clubs go under. And historically, he points out, when clubs go bust they always bounce back.

Dan Jones of the consultancy firm Deloitte, which compiles an annual report on top flight football finances, is another supporter of the status quo. In a contribution to the Premier League's most recent report, The Success of the Premier League Model, Jones salivates over "the history, tradition and style of English football" and describes "a virtuous circle throughout the Premier League of revenue growth, recruitment of the best players, top-quality football and further revenue growth". Youth development, the success of the national team and financial sustainability seem to matter little to the likes of Szymanski and Jones.

But they are losing the argument, these cheerleading Panglossians. One piece of evidence they cite for the success of the English model is the recent dominance of English teams in European club competition. But last season, no English team made it past the quarter-finals of the Champions League. And sign are growing of strain at even some of the dominant English clubs. Liverpool is in crisis as its American owners have been forced by the Royal Bank of Scotland to put the club on the market. And Manchester United is under pressure from fans disgruntled at the £700m debts the club's American owners have hung around its neck. Meanwhile, supporters of Portsmouth, which plunged into administration in February, seem strangely unwilling to share Szymanski's sanguine long view of the endurance of football clubs. And now we have England's humiliation in South Africa. The gap between the rhetoric of the Premier League cheerleaders and the reality is turning into a chasm.

It is time to ask questions. Could it be that, despite what the optimists say, fans don't want their clubs to risk bankruptcy merely to stand still? Might they prefer the Premier League to deliver some small degree of competitive balance? Is it possible that England supporters expect their national team, if not to win the World Cup, at least to avoid disgracing itself? The laissez-faire brigade has built this world of extreme inequality, financial profligacy, narrow self-interest and national failure in English football. The question is: how much longer will fans want to continue living in it?

Premier League 2008-09

Revenue: £1.981bn

Operating profits: £79m

Net Debt: £3.3bn (£1.4bn soft loans)

Spending on youth academies: £30m

Bundesliga 2009-09

Revenue: €1.6bn (£1.3bn)

Operating profit: €172m (£143m)

Net debt: €610m (£506m)

Spending on youth academies: €55m (£46m)

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?