Our children will never play like Carlos Kickaball

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So, once more the ritual begins. People with their faces painted red and white stare into space, watery-eyed. The manager appears at a press conference to express his bewildered disappointment.

So, once more the ritual begins. People with their faces painted red and white stare into space, watery-eyed. The manager appears at a press conference to express his bewildered disappointment.

The word "gutted" is used on countless phone-ins. At the same airport where, a day or so earlier, representatives of "England's shame" came home, the national shirt over their faces to conceal their identity, the players return, heads down, grim-faced, like people arriving for a court hearing.

The next few days will be devoted to the recriminations and blood-letting that traditionally follow great footballing disasters. But soon the whole process will start again. New players will make their débuts. Qualifying rounds for the next great contest, the World Cup, will take place. Hope will flicker and, at the smallest success, blind us to the truth. Here we go, the national game, football's coming home... the grim, self-deceiving clichés will be back.

Perhaps, during this brief respite from illusion, we should cut through the various excuses - wrong formation, dodgy team selection, too many foreigners in the Premiership - and admit that, just as hooliganism is routinely described as the problem of society, not football, so the same can be said of the game itself. We get the footballers and the fans that we deserve.

The truth behind why British teams and their supporters cut such a sorry figure in international tournaments is to be found neither at Anfield or Highbury, nor in the good old East End pub where jovial, beer-bellied cockneys sing songs about Pakis or the IRA. It can be seen in parks throughout the country, where adults introduce children to the world of sport.

A nation expresses its true character in the way it treats its children. By the age of eight or nine, boys have been taught that the most important aspect of football is to win. The large and the strong are favoured by managers of young teams for their ability to kick smaller, more skillful players out of the game.

The art of the professional foul is learnt early. On the touchline, apoplectic parents bellow out the catchphrases at the heart of the English game. "Put 'im under, Darren." "Get your foot in, son."

Abroad children are, of course, also playing football, but with a difference. The joy of play is taken for granted. To watch a group of Italian children kicking a ball about in a square or a park is to see an entirely different game.

A few years later, a cruel paradox becomes evident. The very obsession of the British with winning, with strength, with attitude, is what makes them ill-quipped to win anything. The hard-man heroes - from Stuart "Psycho" Pearce to Roy Keane, from Vinnie Jones to Dennis Wise - are humiliated by foreign versions of the skinny kids who were once booted into touch.

It is agonisingly unfair. Robbing ourselves of joy for all those years should earn some kind of pay-off. Instead, as the English footballer tries to hoof the ball away angrily, the foreign player - Carlos Kickaball, as Alan Sugar, the Spurs chairman, once memorably described him - skips by in joyful possession of the ball.

In the stand, or in the pub, or in a bar in Charleroi, the would-be footballers in their three-lion shirts are once again forced to watch their own shortcomings enacted on the pitch. Like the footballers they follow, they are hard, brave, and patriotic; no one has more attitude than they have. Yet, the more they want to win, the less able they are to do so.

Who could be surprised that the more insecure of them, fuelled by booze and national self-loathing, take to the streets for the one contest that cannot be defeated by skill and joy? After all, they are representing the British way of life.