How International Football Became a ‘Dead Fortnight’: England’s Fate Is As Predictable As Ever

With the overblown and Predictable qualification rounds in recent years, it’s easy to forget all these years later that when England’s qualification group for the Italia ’90 World Cup kicked off in the autumn of 1988 it contained just four sides and only six matches in total.  The UEFA qualification process contained only thirty-two national sides.  By the time the final meaningless qualification group match between Albania and Poland had occurred, the map of Europe was already under threat of being redrawn.  Just six days’ prior, the Berlin Wall had been brought down and what Winston Churchill had referred to as the ‘Iron Curtain’, which split Europe in two and divided it into east and west, was now gone.

In contrast, when England’s 2018 World Cup group games kicked off last September, the group contained six sides with ten games to play.  Had England have finished as runners-up in the group, there would have been a further play off of two games to reach the World Cup Finals next summer.  The number of sides involved in UEFA’s qualification group was a total of fifty-four, with hosts Russia also being a member side of UEFA.  The Berlin Wall’s collapse meant that two member associations of UEFA (that of East and West Germany) became one.  However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Lithuania, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova and Russia competing instead.

Walls Come Tumbling Down

The collapse of the Eastern bloc since 1989 has also led to many traditional ethnic identities coming out of the historical deep freeze and subsequently bringing the collapse of Czechoslovakia (becoming the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Yugoslavia (becoming Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina).  The dissolving of three longstanding UEFA associations alone led to the creation of seventeen new competitors for qualification, but also the weakening of three reasonably strong long-standing UEFA competitors. Czechoslovakia prevented England from qualifying for Euro ’76 by winning the group and then went on to win the competition.  The Soviet Union reached the final of Euro ’88, won Euro ‘60 and came runners up in Euro ’64.

The runners up in Euro ’60 were Yugoslavia, who in the last competition which they completed in full reached the Quarter Finals of the Italia ’90 World Cup.  The Yugoslavs also qualified for Euro ’92 before being expelled under UN Sanctions with two weeks to go before the tournament kicked off.  Their replacements – Denmark – went on to win the tournament.  Though the Czech Republic were runners up in Euro ’96, Russia reached the Semis of Euro 2008 and Croatia have had a few good tournaments over the last twenty years, the vast majority of the thirteen new national sides have mostly been mediocre in comparison to the three dissolved pre-1990 nations.

Not only did the fall of the Iron Curtain lead to a rise in mediocre competitors, but since 1990 there has been the inclusion of Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein and San Marino to UEFA competition – none of whom are likely to qualify for a major finals tournament, or even (despite San Marino’s seven second lead over England in 1993) pose much threat of a defeat.  You could say they were simply there to make up the numbers, except national football sides is hardly something the continent of Europe lacks! England’s record in qualifying games during the twenty century to date couldn’t be much better, having only lost six games since the turn of the millennium.  England haven’t actually lost a qualifier since losing 0-1 to Ukraine in October 2009 (as seen below).

England a ‘Perfect Ten’ in Qualifiers 

The Three Lions even went through the entirety of their Euro 2016 qualification group without dropping a single point, with a perfect ten wins out of ten.  That Euro 2016 qualification group however actually contained four national sides (Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino) that simply didn’t exist at the time of the 1990 qualification process.  The same was also the case for England’s 2014 World Cup Qualifying group (Ukraine, Montenegro, Moldova, San Marino).  England’s current World Cup Qualifying group sees Gareth Southgate’s side just one point from qualifying, with eight wins from 10 and an eight-point lead at the top of the table.  That very same group also has three national side which have only come into being in the years since 1990.

The England side pretty much cruises through the qualification process these days.  However, while competing in the major international tournaments during this very same unbeaten period of qualifiers, England’s performances couldn’t be any more underwhelming.  England’s 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa saw the low point of a goalless bore draw with Algeria, where Wayne Rooney rather ungraciously expected England fans to pay up for tickets and travel half way across the globe, but simply cheer such an insipid performance as if they were members of the crowd from a Roy of the Rovers comic.  That World Cup saw only one victory for England against Slovenia, which saw the Three Lions limp into the second round, before suffering a 1-4 massacre at the hands of the Germans.

The Most Overrated National Team in the World

Though England fared better in Euro 2012, with two wins and a draw from the group phase before a penalty shootout loss to eventual finalists Italy, Roy Hodgson’s side crashed to a World Cup group phase elimination for the first time since 1958 two years later in Brazil with just one point from three games.  Euro 2016 also saw just one victory against Wales, followed by an inability to build momentum on the back of this, with a draw in the final group game followed by a humiliating round of sixteen loss to Iceland (whose entire population is 1/24th the size of Greater London and has no standing army whatsoever).

Iceland’s Eidur Gudjohnsen had revealed after the game that as first time qualifiers, his side felt a sense of achievement simply being there, which removed a weight of expectation from their shoulders.  He also pointed out that Iceland boss Lars Lagerback’s pre-match pep talk had pointed out the chasm between English success in the qualifiers and failure in the finals, and stated: ‘we are playing against the most overrated national team in the world’.  The predictability of England qualifying, followed by the predictability of failure at the tournament finals has in turn made England’s fate as pre-determined as a pro-Wrestling bout, only minus the artistic licence of a WWE scriptwriter.

It’s easy to forget now that England’s qualification campaigns of yesteryear had once brought something in the way of noteworthy drama and even the threat of failure, instead of being something of a predictable formality.  Also, though England generally failed in the tournament finals, there too was always the faint outside chance that the side might pull something off in the same manner that the campaigns of Denmark in 1992, Greece in 2004 and very nearly the Welsh in 2016.  With regard to qualification rounds, the drama of England’s failure to defeat Poland in October 1973 briefly kept the fallout from the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent OPEC Oil Crisis off of the front pages of the nation’s Newspapers.

England’s Days of ‘Glorious Failure’

The result meant failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, with Brian Clough infamously – and as it turned rather unfairly – calling Polish keeper Jan Tomaszewski a ‘clown’.  England again failed to reach the finals of the Argentina ’78 World Cup on goal difference, though their final qualifier – a 2-0 win against Italy at Wembley- was still a rare example of live TV coverage of football on ITV, with viewers treated to a ding-dong running battle between England captain Kevin Keegan and Italy’s Marco Tardelli.  England finally qualified for a World Cup again with Espana ’82, though nothing about that qualification group was plain sailing for the Three Lions, who only booked their tickets to Spain by one point after a 1-0 win over Hungary in November 1981 and losing as many as three games during the campaign.

One such loss during the campaign was the infamous 1-2 defeat away in Norway, where Norwegian commentator Bjørge Lillelien reeled off the names of numerous famous English historical figures at the final whistle.  The turbulence of that campaign was such that the relief of the BBC panel at full time when qualification was confirmed, was visible for all to see.  Other pre-1990 qualification groups which the England side took down to the wire include Euro ’88, where an impressive 4-1 away victory over Yugoslavia gave the Three Lions hope ahead of the finals in West Germany the following summer.

With Italia ’90, England hung on for a 0-0 draw with Peter Shilton in fine form in October 1989, to secure Three Lions’ passage to Italy. Similarly, in the Euro ’92 qualifying rounds, England again relied on getting a result away in Poland in the last game.  After going a goal down to the Poles, England secured qualification with a goal from Gary Lineker with thirteen minutes to go, as England progressed through to the Finals in Sweden through a tough group with a 1-1 draw, where the Republic of Ireland were eliminated despite being unbeaten and even third place Poland lost just the one game throughout the campaign.  Also, despite England’s lack of glory since 1966, they never really went out of tournaments with a wimper and often were quite unlucky.

In Espana ’82, the Three Lions won their first three group games, which included a comprehensive 3-1 victory over the French side of Platini, Battiston and Tigana who reached the Semis and subsequently won Euro ’84, aided by two goals from Bryan Robson, the first of which had been the earliest goal scored in a World Cup Finals, in just twenty seven seconds.

England however ended up eliminated from Espana ’82 unbeaten, after two goalless draws with Spain and West Germany in the unusual three-team Second group phase which existed for just the one tournament.  England also went out of the Mexico ’86 World Cup courtesy of a Maradona handball in a 1-2 Quarter Final loss to Argentina and also lost penalty shoots in Italia ’90 and Euro ’96 in the Semi Finals and Portugal in the Quarter Finals of Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup.

Even the England side in Euro ’88 gave a better account of themselves on the pitch than the record books would give them credit for, despite suffering elimination after three straight defeats (the worst results that England have ever managed in a major international finals).  England were unlucky in that Gary Lineker was at this point in the early stages of Hepatitis and missed a hatful of chances in a 0-1 defeat to Republic of Ireland.  For the most part, they never played that badly against the Dutch either despite losing 1-3, as Gullit, Van Basten et al were simply a different class that day.  Also, self-evidently in a finals competition of just eight qualifiers, the group phase is also going to be that much harder to qualify from due to the quality of the opposition.

Contrast those performances at international finals with England’s showing of the last seven years and there really isn’t much in the way of heroic failure.  Only a handful of performances in finals actually strike you as noteworthy, such as the 3-2 win over Sweden in Euro 2012, or beating Wales 2-1 in the Euro 2016 group phase.  Outside of this, the 2010s have been a barren decade of underwhelming performances in major tournaments for the English national side.  And what’s worse is that it doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. England are trapped in such a cycle of mediocrity that they have to go some to rise up to the level to the level of becoming challengers again, or fall down to such a poor level that failure to qualify looks like a possibility.

Too Good to Fail, Too Poor to Succeed

In the Euros, to fall out of contention for qualification the England side has to fall beneath third in a group of six sides, to miss out on even a play-off spot.  As many as 44% of UEFA member sides qualify for the finals of the Euros, hence why four out of five of the National sides from the British Isles made it to France.  Even by the time of the 2020 World Cup, when the finals of the tournament increases to forty eight sides, UEFA’s allocation will increase to sixteen sides (29% of its member sides).  From a simple economic point of view, the increased number of competing sides in the major international tournaments is deemed beneficial by the governing bodies for popularizing the game in relatively new territories – i.e. China, the Middle East, North America.

The TV companies also like them as, with increasingly fractured media audiences, they are among the last remaining events which are able to bring large simultaneous audiences (even Portugal v Czech Republic in Euro 2012 managed an impressive 10 million viewers in the middle of Summer, traditionally the period in which TV watching is at its lowest). There’s signs however that the monotony may be beginning to hit the famed huge audience figures that England finals games have been noted to achieve since the Italia ’90 World Cup.  According to BARB figures, historical highs have been 16.7 million watching England’s Semi-Final defeat to West Germany in Italia ‘90 and 17.5 million for defeat against the Germans in the Semi-Final of Euro ’96.

The Beginning of the End of the Mass Audience for England Games in Finals

In France ’98, the three most watch programmes of the year were 19.1 million for the group phase victory over Colombia, 19.5 million for defeat to Romania and 23.8 million for the Second Round penalty shootout loss to Argentina.  Again, the top three most watched programmes of 2004 were England games during that year’s European Championship Finals in Portugal, with the England v France group fixture managing to get 17.8 million viewers, England v Croatia getting 18.3 million viewers and the most watched programme of the year being the Quarter Final penalty shootout loss to Portugal with 20.7 million viewers.  All five of the most watched shows of 2006 came from that year’s World Cup.  England’s group game against Trinidad and Tobago attained 13.7 million viewers, the World Cup final between Italy and France managing 13.9 million viewers.

The Quarter Final penalty shootout defeat to Portugal managed to get 16.2 million viewers.  England’s second round victory over Ecuador achieved 16.3 million, while the most watched show of 2006 had been England’s group phase victory over Sweden, with 18.5 million viewers.  After a four-year gap between competitions and England’s lacklustre performances in the group phase, only England’s defeat to Germany in the second round managed to reach the top ten most watched programmes of 2010.  An audience of 15.8 million was the third highest TV audience of the year.  Viewing figures were back up again in 2012, as seven of the top ten TV audiences for that year were sporting events.

England’s group phase victory over Sweden managed to attract 14.3 million viewers, which had been the seventh highest audience of the year.  The next group game against Ukraine four days later had been the fifth highest viewing show of 2012 with an audience of 16.2 million.  The highest ratings achieved during Euro 2012 was England’s Quarter Final penalty shootout defeat, in which 20.3 million people tuned in to watch it.  The only two instances of a higher audience in 2012 had been the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics.  In 2014, the World Cup Finals in Brazil accounted for four of the top five TV audiences of the year (the other bagged by the ‘Great British Bake Off’ in fourth place).

The fifth highest audience had been Germany’s 8-1 drubbing of hosts Brazil.  The second and third highest viewing shows had been England’s group game with Uruguay (13.9 million) and Italy (14.7 million).  The most viewed programme of 2014 was the World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina with 15 million viewers.  In Euro 2016, the most viewed game had been the final between France and Portugal which managed to get 12.3 million viewers.  However, for the first time since Euro ’92, an England game at a major international tournament failed to break into the top ten most viewed shows of the year.  Arguably, many people – particularly those who less habitually watch football – can pretty much predict that the England side aren’t going to be greatly successful – even with the slightest outside chance.

Maybe the England side could renew the public interest and break the monotony by becoming unforeseeably successful?  Or maybe even once again look as if there might be the slightest chance that they could once again become successful?  After all, the British Olympic team picked up just the one gold medal in 1996, yet finished second in the medals table twenty years later in Rio 2016.  England have also won a Rugby Union World Cup this side of the Millennium and a Brit has even won Wimbledon twice in the last five years, after the nation’s tennis fans had a seventy-seven year wait.

However, one big difference – at least with regard to the Olympics and Wimbledon – is lottery funded development of talent (even Andy Murray began his tennis career on lottery-funded courts).  In Rugby Union, since it turned professional in the 1990s, clubs have an annually adjusted salary cap to prevent too much of its wealth going out of the game on player’s wages.  Football in contrast, while it brings in revenue which other sports can only dream of, has long suffered the ‘prune juice’ effect in that revenue is often squandered on player salaries rather than invested in grass roots development of talent.

Until the English game has a change of emphasis with regard to this matter, it rather looks as if English football fans had better prepare themselves for a lot more benign successes in the qualifying rounds, followed by mediocre failings in international finals.  They could well be with us for the foreseeable future at least.