Though it's not likely to happen in any of our lifetimes, let's imagine for a moment that German football had just imploded as pathetically as did England's last Wednesday night. Who would their spinmeister have chosen to put the best possible face on the disaster?
It would not have been a bunch of faceless mediocrities, time-servers like Geoff Thompson, chairman of the Football Association, and Sir Dave Richards, whose reward for helping to run down the fine old club Sheffield Wednesday was to be voted chairman of the Premier League.
It wouldn't have been the chief executive, Brian Barwick, an amiable, no doubt sincere, man who had a successful career in television, but who in a serious football nation would scarcely have lasted five minutes after the conclusion of his comically inept pursuit of the man he this week, in effect, apologised for appointing.
No, the Fatherland would have been able to deal from a position of relative strength at their lowest point. They would have put up "The Kaiser" – Franz Beckenbauer.
The point, though, is that it wouldn't have been a public-relations device. It would have been a reflection of the very reality that makes this scenario of a crisis for German football the last word in hypothesis. It would have been the fact that from almost the dawn of his career Beckenbauer has been recognised by the German Football Federation as rather more than an exceptional player, but someone who understood the nuances of the game, a man who cried out to be groomed for a role at the centre of his nation's football development.
This brings us to the most forlorn of comparisons. While Beckenbauer was entrusted with influence ever since he led the team to victory in the 1974 World Cup in his native Munich – he coached West Germany to the 1986 final and won in Italy in 1990 and was the organising genius of the brilliantly staged World Cup of last year – the late Bobby Moore didn't fare so well on the totem pole of English football. His highest point of influence on the football affairs of the nation he led so gloriously to its one World Cup success in 1966 was to pick up a microphone on behalf of a London radio station. It was not so much that he lived without honour but that, as far as the FA was concerned, he might not have lived at all.
His counsel was not required by the men who shaped England's football – the old guys who wore their blazers, got on their planes for their five-star hotels and waited for their knighthoods. This, after the stomach-churning performance of the England team on Wednesday night, and the official bromides and hypocrisy that came with the dawn, was what stuck most intrusively in the craw.
Who do England have as guardians of their national team: Thompson, Richards, Barwick. Germany have a Beckenbauer. What of France, who in the last nine years have won one World Cup, thrown another away, and won the European Championship? Michel Platini, who is now boss of European football.
Italy (four World Cups and a European Championship) have not been been slow to feed on the practical knowledge of some of their great players. While Sir Bobby Charlton is the only significant ex-player currently serving on a Premier League board – and it may not be entirely coincidental that his club, Manchester United, regularly supply England with as many as five players while Arsenal rarely field a single Englishman – the Italian game is sprinkled with such figures, with Roberto Bettega rising to the vice- presidency of Juventus and the fabled Giacinto Facchetti serving as president of Internazionale until his death last year.
What we saw at Wembley on Wednesday as Croatia so effortlessly tore England to pieces was what happens when a team, like a moribund culture, is simply not tended adequately. Why not?
Because there is not enough knowledge of the real game, and how it is shaped successfully. Because the passion, the fidelity, the love for the core values of football have gone. Because the TV money sloshes to the gunnels, and who really cares if the national team goes lurching to hell in a fast lane of celebrity and opulence that couldn't be imagined by the heroes of Wembley in 1966? Because the men who spruced up their blazers and their pinstripes and got on the plane yesterday for Durban and the World Cup, without a clue about who they would have to lead England into the tournament in five years' time, wallow in the fantasy that they have any grip on what they are doing.
Steve McClaren, lampooned, derided, sorrowful Steve McClaren, stayed at home musing on what some realists could have told him would probably never come to pass. But then he got the ride, the big pay-off and the memory of that surreal day when Barwick announced him as the man the FA had wanted all along.
Sam Allardyce, who made such a big play for the job when he was still a hero of Bolton, is probably not so inclined to throw in his hat this time; indeed after the undressing Portsmouth administered to his Newcastle in front of their own fans, the sight of Croatia unpicking the England defence as though it had been put together with dog stitches probably froze his blood. However, he retains the nerve to make an extremely valid point. It is that by kick-off time this afternoon most fans will be back in their parochial tunnels, yelling for their clubs and treating what happened at Wembley as they might any old hangover.
Where this reality kicks in most meaningfully is at the Emirates. Arsène Wenger's young legionnaires will be confidently expected to take apart Wigan Athletic with all the tender mercies of Hannibal Lecter.
Still, what exquisite nourishment; certainly no need for Chianti or fava beans. But then, as never before, maybe it might be cause for a little reflection for those who remember being told that Arsenal, with their marble halls and their Cliff Bastins and Eddie Hapgoods and Tony Adamses were always such a mighty symbol of the traditions of the English game. If Allardyce is right, and the fear must be that he is, today's Gooner doesn't care where his football originates, as long as it is beautiful and it wins and it is dressed in red and white. This certainly is the understanding of the Premier League executive as it waddles from one lush TV contract to another; give us your huddled masses, it says, to the youth systems of almost of every nation except its own.
Who really cares? Charlton does, along with those who remember the surge of blood that came when England beat the world in 1966. But then Arsène Wenger doesn't and this week we saw some of the consequences when managers like him and, first of all, when he was manager of Chelsea, Gianluca Vialli think nothing of fielding a team composed entirely of foreigners. No, Wenger declares, he has no obligation to further anyone's interests but Arsenal's. But then should he not receive a little prodding; could it not be pointed out by some unimpeachable authority, that if you take a nation's football stage and make a dream there might be a case for letting in some of the inhabitants beside those who happen to support your club and pay your wages?
Maybe it is an idealistic point but it was hard to stop it from jumping up and grabbing you around the throat when the chairman of the Premier League took his place at the inquest of the team that used to compete seriously against the best sides in the world.
Remember how the Premiership was dressed at birth. It was a slimline creature, designed for the glory of English football – and expressly for the benefit of the England team. There would be less pressure to overplay, more time for the national manager to hone his tactics and make a coherent team. A lovely baby, no doubt, but unfortunately it was more or less strangled at birth.
Meanwhile the profit margins soar and England is ever more the impoverished outcast. There was Dave Richards in the gang who assured us that a new start would be made. But then how much more convincing would it have have been had it come from someone like the Kaiser rather than a mere knight of this particular football realm?Reuse content