Steve Richards: I hope the Slovenians beat us

Like bankers and senior BP executives, footballers are unaccountable until something goes wrong. They represent the worst of what's happened since the 1980s
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The Independent Online

I have not enjoyed a World Cup as much since 1978, when Scotland limped out of the competition following months of hype in which winning the tournament was regarded as a mere step towards eternal global domination. The England performances are a glorious echo. Dire, leaden displays become a form of entertainment. As a result of the last two blissful games, a slight dilemma arises. Do I want the exquisite, predictable anti-climactic drama to continue beyond tomorrow's game against Slovenia? That means the lads would have to spoil everything by playing reasonably well for 90 minutes, or at least for a few minutes.

The dilemma is only slight. I want the bunch of half-formed multi-millionaire, sluggish, thuggish, charmless footballers to be humiliated and knocked out tomorrow. I want the manager on £5m a year to be called to account along with the army of hangers-on in non-jobs at the lavishly resourced Football Association.

I write as a football fan and not from the lofty heights of disdainful indifference. Some of my heroes are footballers or managers, Luka Modric and David Ginola from current or recent times, Brian Clough and Kevin Keegan from the 1970s. I took particular inspiration from Keegan as a player with limited skill who became world class through sheer willpower, and wondered whether my narrow range ("a lethal left foot", my PE teacher wrote on a school report) could be lifted by Keegan-style commitment. I got Keegan's perm but failed to acquire the skill.

It is possible to enjoy football while loathing the England team and the set-up that accompanies it. Together they represent the worst of the UK and as they are our most prominent representatives across the globe this is a matter of some significance. Millions from around the world must watch and sigh in bored bewilderment. What's going on over there, they must ask? We should ask too. The national team's failings tell us something about the state of the country as much as the collapse of our banks and the short-term, cost-cutting calculations from BP that led to an environmental crisis in the US.

In all three cases there was a complacent assumption that lightly regulated markets work. We know about the banks. We are discovering more about how BP works in spite of being in a theoretically competitive market place, the risks it was willing to take to save money, the lack of internal accountability so that apparently its chief executive knew little of what was going on. Now we see the consequences in football. The top clubs do not bother investing in younger talent or the resources required to develop them. They take the short cut of buying in players from abroad. As a result, English players do not get much of a chance and those that play for top clubs look better than they really are.

In his Budget today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, will play on the fashionable argument that public spending is wasteful. No doubt some of it is, but whenever a specific area is scrutinised the case becomes much more complicated. Two summers ago, Britain's triumphant athletes returned from the Olympics laden with gold medals, an unusual experience for them and us. In interviews they hailed the massive increase in investment from government during the previous decade, in facilities and training. From left and right, columnists also praised forward-thinking long-term investment. A connection was made between government activity and its positive consequences.

In football there is no such focus. Instead, playing fields were sold off in the 1980s, a policy New Labour at first continued. Wealthy clubs spent most of their cash on players or paying off managers. The reward for failure can amount to millions of pounds. Managers are idolised. Tears are shed when they are sacked. Their bank balances bulge with much of the spare cash that could go towards investing in facilities for younger players.

The only time in recent years where top clubs have risen to the occasion is when they have been compelled to do so. The Taylor report that followed the fire at Bradford City's ground in 1985 insisted on the introduction of all-seater stadiums. No club would have acted on their own accord. They would have carried on busking it with rotting stadiums and booming salaries. It took a tragedy and compulsion to bring about change. Similarly, banks will only learn the lessons of the lightly regulated era if they are told to do so. These are arguments for tougher regulation and active government.

Like the bankers and senior managers at BP, the footballers and the FA are unaccountable until something goes drastically wrong. When there is a catastrophe, inarticulate figures surface, unused to scrutiny. On the basis of his recent inept public performances, the chief executive of BP could not win an election for a seat in a parish council, yet has floated to the top of a major global company. The bankers' apologies were so formulaic and over-rehearsed they would not have passed muster at a school debating society. Now it is England footballers' turn to represent the worst of what has happened since the 1980s. They are ridiculously rich. If they bought an expensive car every week of the year, they would still have half their salary left to blow on unwanted gadgets that kill boredom for a few hours. Individuals waste money as much as governments.

While they have more cash than they know what to do with, some of them seem pretty miserable. Compared with some of their more vibrant foreign counterparts, they seem to have no language or inner resources. Yet near wordless anger is unconstrained. Wayne Rooney lost it during a friendly match on the eve of the tournament, playing a bunch of nonentities. That is nothing. A few of the team have been involved in incidents during booze-fuelled nights after which they were answering awkward questions from the police. Most foreign players in England do not drink. They are amazed at the booze culture that infects players and fans with time and cash to get legless.

The 1980s mindset that created wooden England players, the deranged market in which football functions, and the drink-sodden atomised culture that arises from it, is still firmly in place. It shapes some assumptions behind today's Budget. A gormless 1-0 defeat tomorrow might lead at least to a few hard questions being posed. I can't wait.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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