England's national football teams seem to have got into the habit of reaching major semi-finals in recent times and losing. It is however, an upgrade on past tournaments. The men's team have improved almost beyond recognition in the way in which they approach these events under Gareth Southgate and Phil Neville's reign as manager of the women's team show similar progress. But neither are anywhere near really being ranked with the best. Yet.
Above - A familiar sight for English football (AP)
England's 2-1 defeat by the reigning world champions the USA in this year's Women's World Cup is no real surprise although the match could have gone the other way. The US were, let's be honest, a little better than England but not by so much that England were outclassed. Far from it in fact but the US did have that little extra to win the game, just as Croatia did in the men's World Cup in Russia.
What may be the question, for some at least in England, is, why is the USA the team to beat? Why can't the country that gave the game to the world - England - be true equals? Really - the USA? Hardly a hotbed of football, or soccer as they call the game.
The answer lies in what are now more years in the past than I care to think about. When I was still a fresh-faced youth I spread my wings a little and made my first trip across the pond to the USA on my own. I had been years before, in tandem with my father, who held an ambition to visit the country and towed a little me around almost the entire country on a Greyhound bus. It was certainly an eye-opener, for us both, but my sojourn later was still the first real trip of my own.
While there I went to the Texas city of Dallas and watched a youth tournament called (inevitably) the Dallas Cup. The USA wasn't the first place that sprang to mind, at the time, for the beautiful game but boys teams from the city had been touring Europe for some time and impressing everybody with the level of skill they had. What restrained the male game in the US was the lack of a real, competitive men's professional league. Yes, they did have a league, and had for a number of years but American gridiron football and baseball had become well-entrenched decades before; the US as a country had never really taken to soccer.
But wait - what happened when England, then supposedly at the height of their powers, played the USA at the World Cup in 1950? England lost, 1-0 to a goal by Joe Gaetjens. Held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the result was one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. Or was it?
As unbelievable as it may seem today, the 1950 tournament was England's first. The Football Association (the FA), noses in the air, had considered the first (held in Uruguay) beneath them. As the tournament became more established, the FA then had a dispute over payments to amateur players, and three World Cup tournaments had already taken place before this one.
The England team that day was: Bert Williams in goal, Alf Ramsey, John Aston, Billy Wright(c), Laurie Hughes, Jimmy Dickinson, Wilf Mannion, Tom Finney, Jimmy Mullen, Stan Mortensen and Roy Bentley. The manager was Walter Winterbottom and Stanley Matthews watched as he hadn't been selected for that game.
Undoubtedly some of the biggest names of the era in English football but not only did they lose to the USA, they also lost 1-0 in their final group game to Spain so did not progress any further. Neither did the USA and they didn't qualify for another World Cup until 1990, when they went on a streak of seven consecutive finals appearances, bolstered by a number of those players that had come through the ranks of US youth football, with many of them going to play for European clubs (including in England). The US have never of course, gone deep into a men's World Cup but they can, have and do, produce genuinely world class players. And they have been doing the same in the Women's game for years.
Back to that Dallas Cup youth tournament; one of the aspects to it that caught my eye was the extent of the girl's game and how good they were. Forget gender for a moment - I was watching very good young football players. Both boys and girls. The USA was developing very good players at early ages, it has been doing so for years and that is why, in the women's game, the USA are the defending World Champions.
So what of the rest of the world, and of England? The nation that invented the game had patted itself on the back for years and in 1953 were beaten out of sight by Hungary, 6-3 in Hungary and then again 7-1 a year later at Wembley. To be fair, some reorganisation did take place but it took until 1966 for England to actually win the World Cup and home advantage to do it. Otherwise, the English game has buried its head in the sand and continues to do so today.
That rather good Hungary team by the way, was the team of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, Nándor Hidegkuti, among others and they did reach the final of the 1954 World Cup but lost to West Germany. The 'Magnificent Magyars' as they were called had recorded 42 victories and 7 draws before losing to the Germans. They also reached the final of the 1938 World Cup but lost to Italy.
Do you see a recurring theme here? Italy and Germany's World Cup winning record is bettered only by Brazil and there have been just eight winners of the men's game; Brazil (5), Italy and Germany (4), Uruguay, Argentina and France (2) with England and Spain winning just once each. Put another way, the rest of the world took the idea of the English and made progress. England simply sat back in self-congratulatory isolation.
That same attitude has been very prevalent towards the Women's game in England. Once again the rest of the world has progressed. Yet there has still been just seven Women's World Cup tournaments, the first being in 1991. The winners were - guess who - the United States. See my earlier remarks about just how good the country is. The full list of women's World Cup finals and the results:
2015 United States 5, Japan 2.
2011 Japan 3, United States 1 on penalties after extra time with the score at 2-2.
2007 Germany 2, Brazil 0.
2003 Germany 2, Sweden 1.
1999 United States 5, China 4 on penalties after extra time with the score at 0-0.
1995 Norway 2, Germany 0.
1991 United States 2, Norway 1.
Another recurring theme; the USA have already been World Champions three times and lost one final; Germany have won it twice. Even Brazil have managed to reach one final, but one might raise an eyebrow at Norway... Actually, like the USA, Norway has been at the forefront of developing the game for Women and the Norway Cup youth tournament has been held every year for the last 47 years. Including participation by girls and it is the world's largest. That claim might be disputed by the Gothia Cup, another of the world's biggest and most long-standing youth events held every year in Gothenburg, once more including girls and its been going on since 1975. So the appearance in this year's Women's World Cup semi final by Sweden is again not really a surprise, even though the country has just one final to its name, the 2-1 defeat by Germany. Ah...Germany. Does it have long-standing youth tournaments? Of course. And including the girl's game. China's appearance might be a little more surprising but then again, given the country's development of football over recent times, perhaps not.
So which country is missing from that list above and has never had youth tournaments, held over many years, of the same standing, scale and size of those found elsewhere? Guess again...
Yes, England. There are quite a number of youth tournaments held around the country but none have ever come close to the kind of events found in Europe. I am of course referring to eleven-a-side, not five-a-side. The English game revels in weekend five-a-side tournaments, many organised by local clubs and these are useful fund-raisers for the clubs that stage them. What they are not however, are breeding grounds for world class stars of the future. England doesn't do tournaments like those referred to above. So where do national teams go to get that little extra tournament experience that was missing both in Russia for the men and France for the women?
Toulon in France is one and probably the most well known. The 2019 event was the 47th and it was won by Brazil (for the ninth time) and their opponents were...Japan. Yes, Japan. Brazil might have taken the trophy back to South America with them but it took a penalty shoot-out for them to do it after the final ended 1-1.
England have actually won it five times, the last being as recently as 2018. Add that to England's recent successes at the older youth ages it becomes obvious that the country can produce good players. Keeping that in mind, there is also the Under 20 World Cup, first held in 1977 and staged every two years. Argentina have won it six times, Brazil five. No surprise there. Portugal have won it twice. What is a little more curious is that Serbia have been champions twice (the first while still as the old Yugoslavia) but Germany has triumphed just once, along with Spain, France and more of en eyebrow raiser, Ghana. As have England, in 2017.
There is also a Women's equivalent, first held in 2002. It has been won three times by Germany, who were also losing finalists once and the other three-time winner is the United States...the US has never finished lower than fourth (twice, coming third in 2004). Is it any wonder that the USA is now so good at the women's game? Not really. Japan has also won it, although just once and they have also come third, twice. The surprise package has been North Korea, winners twice, runners-up once and fourth once. France - losing finalists in 2016, one third and twice fourth. Spain lost one final and Brazil third once, fourth twice. England? Just one third place, the best they can hope for in this year's Women's World Cup. The USA however, remain the dominant force in Women's football
Alex Morgan celebrates scoring the USA's second goal.
(Image - © Future Publishing Ltd)
The Tournament ideal, the feeling for it, the concept, will not be established in England until and unless the country that invented the game can find the vision (and the money) to establish a viable, strong and truly competitive professional league for women with top level clubs having squads made up of predominantly English players rather than a preponderance of foreign players. It also needs international tournaments of equivalent standing to Toulon, Dallas and those found in Norway and Sweden, held annually. And not just for the obviously elite but also for the small local clubs - you never know who you might see playing for Ordinary Street Rovers.
England's men and women may be perennial semi-finalists (or lower), or, as the men have shown, not really tournament oriented, lacking the experience from their teenage years, gained by playing regularly against teams from around the world.
© Kevan James 2019
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