‘Why I believe English football needs education’

Not so clever: After their defeat by Uruguay the England team realise their failings.
by Justin Cartwright

Justin Cartwright is the award-winning author of 15 novels; the most recent, ‘Other People’s Money’, was published in 2011. He has also worked as a film director and in advertising.

England’s embarrassing World Cup exit has brought home some harsh truths about how the sport is run in the UK. And it won’t improve until there are better educated people at all levels.

In 1966, when I was about to go to university, I sat in a small hotel in Rome watching England win the World Cup. I have never seen them win since. Generations have now grown up without seeing England win much. But optimism was high in north London last week over England versus Uruguay.

But in my traitor’s heart, I knew England would lose. It gave me no pleasure to be right. Towards the end, the game looked more and more like a Cup Final of the old sort, with frantic hoofs up field, a lack of control and a failure to keep track of Luis Suarez.

The question is not why England lost but why anybody imagined they could win. This is a nation of 63 million, obsessed with football, yet year after year it fails to produce a decent football team. Managers come and go. Nothing gets better.

“What is missing in English football is precisely the kind of rigour that an education provides.”

Over the years millions have been spent on England’s players. They are pampered, fêted, courted. At their clubs they are paid tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds every week. And still they can’t beat a nation of three million. There must be an explanation for why our national football team is so abjectly bad, despite the money, facilities, trainers, physios and diets lavished on the players, and it can’t just be Luis Suarez.

I think the answer springs from the low standards of education of English players. With a few exceptions, English footballers are inarticulate and uneducated. And the people around them, the people who coached them when they were young, are much the same.

Listening to players and coaches, I am astounded that they don’t know the past from the present tense and they can’t explain or discuss the most basic aspects of the game without resorting to clichés. They can barely pronounce the names of their foreign colleagues; they seem bemused by foreign countries. It is as if they live in a bubble tinged with paranoia.

What is required is honest and radical thinking about teaching football. English football can no longer fall back on past glories, and the game’s administrators must produce clear thinking about what has gone wrong. It is unlikely to happen, because the people at the top are part of the problem.

I know what you’re thinking: what has education got to do with football? After all, some of our finest players used to come from the pits. But what is missing in English football is precisely the kind of rigour that an education provides.

I am not talking just of the players but of the whole structure of the bloated management and bureaucracy, which rakes in millions from the Premier League but is unable, apparently, to create a genuine culture of football.

Partly the decline of football is the result of selling off school playing fields and the inevitable lack of competitive school football. But also it is because standards of physical fitness have declined in lock-step with the decline of school sport, to the point where many children are incapable of playing competitive and demanding sports. A relatively small minority of schoolchildren play regular and demanding football.

As I sat miserably watching Suarez destroy England, I found myself thinking back to that glorious day in l966 when our boys beat the Germans 4-2 to take the World Cup. The truth is it will never happen again unless rigour and serious sport return to our schools. We can’t hide behind cliché – and we can’t go on accepting mediocrity.

This article first appeared in the Evening Standard.

Word Watch

Exceptions
Frank Lampard of Chelsea gained 11 GCSEs, including an A* in Latin. His IQ was measured as over 150.
Selling
An estimated 12,000 state school playing fields have been sold off in the UK since 1979.
Declined
The UK is not alone. Children across the world today, on average, run a mile 90 seconds slower than their parents did 30 years ago. Research shows that children’s cardiovascular endurance, which is measured by how far children can run in a set time, has dwindled consistently by about five per cent every decade.