James Lawton: Foreign domination of league keeps England team unfit for purpose
England's drift from the front rank demands a wholesale review of the national game's priorities
One of the great vices of English football used to be an absolute refusal to live in the real world. Every four years most of our leading pundits would announce that we had an excellent chance of winning the World Cup and then everyone rushed off to festoon the family car with flags of St George.
Now that resignation has set in so deeply, the escape from reality takes a somewhat different form.
Now we blame mostly the national coach – and in direct proportion to the money that he is paid. Fabio Capello, consequently, is heading for another weekend of extreme derision when the Spanish world champions come to town.
Some of us, let's face it, may have contributed to this by putting excessive faith in his background as a player and a coach who had spent a professional lifetime operating with great and uncompromising success at the highest level of the game.
For a little while it did not seem such a bizarre theory, as England swept to World Cup qualification and one after another leading player stepped forward to say how much they welcomed Il Capo's brand of hard-nosed, old-pro discipline.
Now we have to recognise that, along with the fact he too has been ambushed by the job as badly as most of his predecessors, England's drift away from the front rank of world-class contenders is so relentless, and runs so deeply, it demands nothing less than a wholesale review of the foundations and the priorities of the national game.
The possibility of embarrassing defeat at Wembley when the likes of Xavi and Iniesta and Villa go to work on Saturday has already been widely discussed. Not so well aired, though, is the fact that if this indeed happens – and who would want to invest more than a little loose change on the possibility that it won't? – it will represent another stage of a desperate pattern.
It will be, if you include Barcelona's almost effortless subjection of Manchester United in last spring's Champions League final, the fourth time in 18 months that English football has been exposed as completely unfit for purpose.
First, the young German team of Thomas Müller and Mesut Ozil banished England from the South African World Cup with football which might have come from another planet. It was quicker, infinitely more imaginative, and flowed with a deadly simplicity.
Then, a few months later we had at Wembley the meeting of the sick men of European football, humiliated England and mutinous France. The trouble was that the new French team of Laurent Blanc had come down from the barricades and was playing some of the football that had given its predecessors of 1998 and 2000 the World Cup and European title.
So here we had evidence of enduring standards – and the classic capacity of a leading football nation to reinvent itself after a period of decline. If we doubted this, it became the most unavoidable reality when the movement of Karim Benzema and Florent Malouda turned Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jagielka inside and out for an opening goal that announced another night of English servitude.
Now, a year on, we face the same kind of disrobing at the hands of the world's best team. And what will be the reaction? Talk of which Englishman should get the job if, for one reason or another, it cannot be given to Harry Redknapp. There will also, of course, be speculation about which young lions can, in the nick of time, constitute New England for the European Championship finals.
What we might just not get round to is some discussion of the fact that the Premier League, which we like to describe as our great gift to the football world, is now touching quite ridiculous levels of foreign domination. If we complain about the fact that teams like France and Spain can come to Wembley so confident in their ability to dominate every phase of the play, what else can we seriously anticipate?
Who is playing remotely as well in English football as Manchester City's David Silva, who cannot crack the Spanish line-up? And if Silva should have a rare off day, whom would City's Italian manager Roberto Mancini most confidently expect to step into the vacuum? Let's guess, in random order: Sergio Aguero, an Argentine, Yaya Touré of the Ivory Coast, Edin Dzeko, a Bosnian, and Mario Balotelli, from a district of Jupiter.
Maybe James Milner or Adam Johnson might intrude into the action but the likelihood lies elsewhere, as it does at Arsenal, where Robin van Persie, like Cesc Fabregas before him, has taken over the leadership of the club, as the excellent Spaniard Juan Mata shows such a possibility at Chelsea and Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart create beautiful football at Spurs and Luis Suarez is a player apart at Liverpool.
The killing point is that English football heads for the Spanish game with scarcely a breath of such inspiration, not with its most talented player, Wayne Rooney, stood down so we can see which mediocrity might make the best stab at replacing him for the European Championship final group games.
No, we don't stick flags on our cars any more. If we care for football, sometimes the greatest temptation is not to adorn the old jalopy but drive it straight off the edge of the cliff.
Ashton lacks clue to what went wrong
In an interview designed to improve the sales of Splashdown: The Story of My World Cup Year by Chris Ashton – but which may not have done so quite as dramatically as he hoped – the England wing was asked how bruised he was in the wake of his team's catastrophic performances on and off the field in New Zealand.
This is what he said: "You lose faith in people. I'd like to think I was quite an open person but now you have to be careful about what people are asking and what they want of you."
Perhaps all those still appalled by one of the ghastliest expressions of misplaced arrogance in the history of English sport can be of a little help here.
What people are asking for, what they want from their international sports representatives, is a little indication of serious purpose and mature understanding of the nature of their challenge. Put another way, they don't want them to behave like a bunch of Saturday night alco-pop warriors.
Heavyweight legacy strictly for the greats
A few days after some more-or-less straight-faced suggestions that former Olympic boxing champion Audley Harrison had revived his professional appeal by surviving a few rounds of Strictly Come Dancing, we hear that one of the great heavyweights, Smokin' Joe Frazier, is fighting for his life in a Philadelphia hospice.
These facts could scarcely be further separated in terms of significance to the history of the heavyweight division and you may argue that it is a lapse in taste placing them not only on the same page but also the same paragraph.
However, some of those entrusted with the legacy of the great days of men like Frazier and his three-time opponent in quite epic fights, Muhammad Ali, might just reflect for a moment the next time they insult their memory by projecting fights and fighters stripped of all meaning and honour.
Qatar remains a blot for Blatter
The great master of the Swiss spoof, Fifa president Sepp Blatter, now tells us of a whole raft of proposals which will finally give his organisation some genuine transparency.
He agrees that there is much work to do if the governance of the world's most popular game is to emerge from the shadows. However, he still seems to be missing the most vital point.
All reform of Fifa will remain utterly self-defeating as long as Qatar remains the host of the 2022 World Cup.
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