England

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England gets dosage of reality

World Cup Qualifier: Highlights of England's 4-0 victory over Moldova.
World Cup Qualifier: Highlights of England's 4-0 victory over Moldova.
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Patrick Barclay

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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LONDON, ENGLAND

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The English used to be considered the most arrogant nation in soccer. Now the administrators and the media seem to be fighting each other for the right to express humility.

It’s been a rather amusing subplot in the buildup to the World Cup qualifiying victory against Moldova at Wembley and Ukraine in Kiev. For years the columnists and other pundits have been calling for realism, pointing out that England has won no major tournament since the World Cup held on home soil in 1966 and debating the degree of compensation provided by the multi-national entertainment of the Premier League.

But when the man in charge talks straight it’s as if he’s committed a cardinal sin.

Greg Dyke, the former television executive appointed chairman of the Football Association in midsummer, spent months preparing the words he was to deliver at a lunch held by national-team sponsor Vauxhall on Wednesday and it turned out to be a speech both wide-ranging and hard-hitting.

Its central theme was that England needed more English players performing in the Premier League, to increase the talent pool available to the national head coach (currently Roy Hodgson), and that a big increase in the numbers of quality coaches across the country was the key method of advancement, although clubs also had to play their part by considering ‘’home-grown’’ quotas and enthusiastic co-operation with the national teams.

So far, so good. The Germans did that a few years back and so revived their fortunes that, after Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski and company had beaten Fabio Capello’s England 4-1 during the last World Cup in South Africa, the pundits were almost united in saying the German example should be followed. Dyke’s speech recognized that but, instead of being praised for reaching out to the Premier League (who had been shown the speech before he gave it), he was portrayed as a warrior looking for a power struggle.

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It got worse when, in a BBC interview after the lunch, he gave the following assessment of England’s chances in the next World Cup in Brazil: "I don’t think, realistically, anyone thinks we are going to win.’’ This concurred with my experience. But apparently it wasn’t Dyke’s place to speak for the soccer nation. The influential Daily Mail slammed him as "Downbeat Dyke’’ and said he’d ‘’cast a shadow’’ over the Moldova and Ukraine games.

Not that Hodgson went along with that. He’s another straight-shooter and, when Dyke’s words were read out to him in front on the eve of the Moldova game, he calmly told the assembled media: "I don’t think many of you will be racing out to place bets on England to win the World Cup either.’’

Given that his players still have a lot of work to do before even earning a place in Brazil – the qualification process concludes with home games against Montenegro and Poland next month, possibly followed by a two-legged playoff – caution is doubly in order. Yet the Mail’s star columnist Martin Samuel chided Dyke: "Nobody expects world domination from England these days, but realism does not equate to anticipated failure…Tournaments are rum things. One recalls that Greece were not realistic European champions in Portugal in 2004 either.’’

Or, for that matter, the Danes in 1992, when they went to the European Championship after being called back from vacations to replace the excluded Yugoslavia and won it. Whether the Danes or Greeks would have been so successful had they swaggered to those tournaments as kings awaiting coronation is debatable. If everyone agrees that for England to approach their tasks humbly is appropriate, what was the problem with Dyke’s honesty?

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Other commentators hinted that it might erode the confidence of young players about to be promoted to the national squad; they might feel invited into a defeatist environment. But the truth appears quite the opposite. Dyke coupled his modest forecast for 2014 with a target of winning the World Cup in 2022. He is 66 and the retirement age for an FA chairman is 70 so he will be long gone by the time the Qatar campaign begins. But it seemed an attempt, however simplistic, to get future England players to look at the stars and aspire rather than rest on the excuses provided by the media.

The percentage of English players regularly featuring in an EPL weekend fell by half between 1992-3 and 2006-7 but has remained constant at around 34 since. That translates into between 80 and 90 footballers competing with many of the world’s best on a week-by-week basis. Only a further sharp reduction would take the nation towards danger level, but Dyke wants to avoid the risk, and to make matters better so that England can realistically face up to Germany and Spain.

And for this he is criticized. In the words of the social commentator Richard Littlejohn, with whom Samuel shares the pages of the Mail: ‘’You couldn’t make it up.’’

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