After Germany’s complete demolition of England yesterday there will be many post-mortems, starting with demands for the head of Fabio Capello. But the English players never once looked fresh, energetic and as if they were enjoying themselves. They came into the World Cup tired and stale after a season in which most of them had played some 60 games: not only far too many but far more than any other national football schedule requires. The English game is also weighed down with foreign imports. The results were all too obvious yesterday, with a thirty-something English team run off the park by a German team which is the youngest in the tournament and bounding with energy. English football lacks an upcoming generation like that because their place it would occupy is already taken by foreign professionals. If England wants to do better than this, it should cut the Premier League to 17 clubs (providing a 32-game season), restrict each club to two foreign players and abolish the League Cup.
This is not entirely guess work. Tim Noakes, the director of the Institute for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, has done thorough tests on the long-term fatigue suffered by sportsmen who are over-played and has shown what a major disadvantage this constitutes, with at least a 20 per cent fall-off in performance. In particular, Noakes showed that even though an athlete might be rested between games, get adequate sleep and remain fit, none of this could prevent the build-up of long-term fatigue over a season. Despite the greed of the South African Rugby Board and its tendency to arrange more and more international tours, Noakes’s warnings were heeded before the last rugby World Cup, and the national squad was given a protracted rest before the tournament. South Africa went on to win the Cup easily. However, for such lessons to be learnt and acted on requires that the sport’s governing body put the interests of the national team above that of the clubs. This is not an easy matter and what we seem to have ended up with in rugby here is that the interests of the clubs predominate most of the time, often producing tired national teams, but in a World Cup year the priorities are reversed.
In English football the clubs are far more dominant and many club bosses would faint clean away at the thought of the reforms suggested above. Fewer games and fewer foreign players mean lower incomes and lower wages. That in itself might be tolerable but the Premiership thus reduced might no longer command such a huge world-wide TV audience. That is what really drives the English game now and only determined government intervention could change things. On balance, English football would vote for a lucrative world class league over winning the World Cup.
Argentina, who strode through masterfully into the last eight, illustrate the opposite. They are now at least joint favourites to win the Cup but Argentinian league football is not famous, not that loaded with stars, and not on the world’s TV. The nation’s greatest players are scattered abroad and only come together on occasions like this. And it is difficult to look at the overweight, foul-mouthed figure of Maradona with his history of drug abuse and think that Argentina has particularly good management. Capello is by far his superior, though that may not save his job. But if England react to this failure merely by once again sacking the manager, spouting a lot of hot air but avoiding structural change in the English game they have settled for second best. Or perhaps 16th best.