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ENGLAND TRAIL BEHIND THE WORLD’S BEST AT ALL LEVELS

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

AS ENGLAND prepare to begin their season with a friendly against Scotland, footballwriters.co.uk can reveal they are trailing behind the world’s elite at the highest levels of international football, winning only a third of their games at finals this millennium.

Since 2000, at senior, Under-21, Under-20 and Under-19 levels England have won 29 of 84 games at world and European finals – 34 per cent.

This is less than half of Argentina (74%) and Spain (69%) while also trailing behind Brazil (65%), Germany (61%) and the Netherlands (57%). The only two current superpowers whose win-record comes close to England’s are Uruguay (53%) and Italy (47%).

Despite their relatively low game-winning percentage (given a false impression by the number of significant shootout victories which go into the record books as draws), Italy won the World Cup in 2006, UEFA Under-21 titles in 2000 and 2004 plus being losing finalists twice; they were also losing finalists at Euro 2000 and Euro 2012 while their youngsters lifted the Under-19 crown in 2003. The Italians may not win as many matches as others, but they know how to succeed at major finals. And take penalties.

Uruguay have won little more than half their matches at various finals, but they are the reigning champions of South America though, like England, their presence at Brazil 2014 is in the balance. The South Americans also reached the final of the 2013 FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

Spain are the undoubted kings of world football, winning six of the last 11 Under-19 titles, the last two at Under-21 level while the seniors are reigning European and World Champions. The Spaniards’ 11 titles are followed by Brazil (5), Italy (4), Argentina (3), Germany (2), the Netherlands (2) and Uruguay (1) – with England a sad zero. Beaten finalists once apiece at Under-21 and  Under-20 is the limit of their international achievements this millennium.

It has been a dismal summer for England whose Under-21s, Under-20s and Under-19s managed one win between them in nine games in international competitions. England’s Under-20’s have not registered a victory in 13 games at three finals; the Under-21’s have won five out of 18 ties at the last six finals, meaning the two sides have a combined five wins in 31 ties. The Under-21’s did reach the final in 2009 when they were hammered 4-0 by Germany, but what the players from that game went on to to achieve is contrasting and significant.

Of the finalists in Malmö four years ago, Germany’s starting XI, which included Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and MesutÖzil, have won a combined 229 full international caps. However, from the England side only James Milner (38 caps) and Theo Walcott (33) have made an impact in the senior team. Scott Loach, Martin Cranie, Nedum Onuoha, Fabrice Muamba, Lee Cattermole and Mark Noble, who started against Germany, never won full international honours.

The seniors have fared better at the World Cup and European Championship, though too often it is the usual story of shootout failures – Euro 2004 (Portugal), Germany 2006 (Portugal) and Euro 2012 (Italy). The last time England made any significant impression at a finals was Euro 96 when penalties (surprise surprise) against Germany (ditto) cost Terry Venables’ side a place in the final. In fact, shootout defeats have accounted for England’s exit at three World Cups and two European Championships since 1990 – five of the 10 tournament finals they have reached. The shootout defeat by Italy at Euro 2012 meant of teams who have competed in at least three shootouts at major tournaments England had the worst record in the world. Their only success came at Euro 96 against Spain, but England were eliminated by Germany after a shootout in the next round.

One reason for England’s ongoing underachieving in international football is said to be the influx of foreign players in the Barclays Premier League, which worries Greg Dyke, the new chairman of the Football Association. Yet 20 years ago, when the England manager had double the number of English players in the elite league to choose from, the national team failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. England also failed to qualify for the World Cups in 1974 (West Germany) and 1978 (Argentina) when the old First Division was exclusively British and Irish and top-heavy with English players.

The 1974/75 Leeds side that lost the European Cup final to Bayern Munich had four English players; the 1976/77 Liverpool team that beat Borussia Mönchengladbach had nine Englishmen; the 1977/78 Liverpool side that defeated Club Brugge had eight England-qualified players; the 1978/79 Nottingham Forest team that beat Malmö had eight Englishmen. Club success built on English foundations did not carry over to the international stage.

It is quality not quantity that matters – club managers select players by skill level, not passports, though Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph made the point: “It is a 40-year failure to produce enough technically and tactically literate international-class players.”

The England shirt seems to weigh heavily on even the best domestic performers – is there REALLY more pressure playing for your country than performing week-in, week-out for one of the Barclays Premier League’s heavyweights? Twelve England internationals have played in winning Champions League teams since 2000 – Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Gary Cahill, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Ryan Bertrand (Chelsea). Sol Campbell (Arsenal), Jermaine Pennant, Peter Crouch (Liverpool), John Terry and Joe Cole (Chelsea) have been on the losing side.

Most of these players have been the backbone of their clubs’ successes at the highest level of European club football, yet a succession of England managers have failed to get the best out of too many of them and others, notably midfielders and attackers.

England returned from this summer’s Under-21 and Under-20 finals without a single victory, in the case of the former without even a point. In the Under-20’s finals Uzbekistan and Iraq reached the quarter-finals; war-torn Iraq can hardly claim to have an outstanding academy system in place, yet their kids fared better than England’s.

The underage competitions tend to be treated as second-class citizens by our clubs – even by the England manager – yet a glance at the winners of these tournaments tells you that success at a younger level can breed success at the highest level. The countries who have won the Under-21, Under-20 and Under-19 titles have also dominated the World Cup, European Championship and Copa America – a coincidence? While the world’s leading nations see junior tournaments as a significant stepping-stone to senior achievements, England and English clubs have too often treated them with contempt.

Roy Hodgson took Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones and Jack Rodwell to Brazil for a friendly this summer instead of allowing them to be available for the European Under-21 finals, while had Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck been fit they, too, would almost certainly have been in Rio rather than Israel. Hodgson believed the experience of playing the 2014 World Cup hosts in the Maracanã would serve the young players better than testing themselves against Europe’s junior elite in Israel.

Whether the experience of Rio will be put to competitive use next summer remains to be seen.

World Cup

2002 – Brazil (r/up Germany)

2006 – Italy (France)

2010 – Spain (Netherlands)

Copa America

2001 – Colombia (Mexico)

2004 – Brazil (Argentina)

2007 – Brazil (Argentina)

2011 – Uruguay (Paraguay)

European Championship 

2000 – France (Italy)

2004 – Greece (Portugal)

2008 – Spain (Germany)

2012 – Spain (Italy)

UEFA U-21 Championship

2000 – Italy (Czech Rep)

2002 – Czech Rep (France)

2004 – Italy (Serbia & Mont’gro)

2006 – Netherlands (Ukraine)

2007 – Netherlands (Serbia)

2009 – Germany (England)

2011 – Spain (Switzerland)

2013 – Spain (Italy)

FIFA U-20 World Cup 

2001 – Argentina (Ghana)

2003 – Brazil (Spain)

2005 – Argentina (Nigeria)

2007 – Argentina (Czech R)

2009 – Ghana (Brazil)

2011 – Brazil (Portugal)

2013 – France (Uruguay)

UEFA U-19 Championship

2000 (as U-18) – France (Ukraine)

2001 (U-18) – Poland (Czech Rep)

2002 – Spain (Germany)

2003 – Italy (Portugal)

2004 – Spain (Turkey)

2005 – France (England)

2006 – Spain (Scotland)

2007 – Spain (Greece)

2008 – Germany (Italy)

2009 – Ukraine (England)

2010 – France (Spain)

2011 – Spain (Czech Rep)

2012 – Spain (Greece)

2013 – Serbia (France)

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