With the inglorious exit of Everton -- bounced out of the Europa League by a 5-2 mauling from Dynamo Kiev -- the participation of English clubs in this season’s European competition has come to an abrupt and really rather shocking halt.
The UEFA Champions League (UCL) and the Europa League are both at the quarterfinal stage, meaning that 16 clubs are still involved -- but not one of them is from England. Everton and Tottenham have failed in the Europa, ditto for Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool in the UCL.
A disastrous performance by the English clubs. Or is it? After all, in what sense can these six clubs be defined as specifically English clubs? Four of them are owned and operated by foreign, i.e. non-English, companies (the two Europa League entries, Tottenham and Everton, are the exceptions). Not one of the six coaches is English. Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers, from Northern Ireland, comes closest. Otherwise, we have a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a Portuguese, a Chilean and an Argentine.
But it is on the field, among the players, that the absence of an English presence is most remarkable. Taking the lineups for the six teams in their final games -- all the teams were still alive, so these were do-or-die games -- gives a total of 66 players. Of these, only 14 were English -- just 21%. If the substitutes are included (all three subs were used in each game), the figure goes up slightly to 24%.
In three essential areas, these six clubs are very far from being English -- only two English owners, no English coaches, and less than a quarter of the players English. Had anyone suggested to me 20 years ago that such a situation would be acceptable in any country -- particularly in England -- I’m sure I would have scoffed at the mere idea.
The European debacle is not a failure of English clubs so much as a failure of English Premier League clubs, and that is not the same thing at all.
Nonetheless, the foreign domination of the EPL team lineups must surely tell us something about the state of English soccer -- but what? It could be nothing more complicated than that foreign coaches prefer foreign players. Or that foreign players are less expensive. But of course the big fear -- among the English -- is that the shortage of English players means that they aren’t good enough.
Whatever, we have been this route before, repeatedly. It has been 49 years since the English national team last won anything, and the English soccer bosses have yet to work out what needs to be done. Maybe nothing. Maybe the necessary changes in attitude are already at work, and time will take care of everything. There is some evidence that the older English players -- nearing retirement now -- are being replaced with more skillful and dynamic youngsters. After all, England’s so-called “golden generation,” now fading rapidly away, never won anything.
While we await those developments there is another aspect to be considered when contemplating these barely-English clubs. That is, how readily such an unthinkable state of affairs has been accepted. It appears that, to the fans involved, the Englishness or otherwise of their club is not that important. Merely having an English name, having an English history, or simply being located in England, is enough.
As long as those stable basics remain -- and the history cannot be altered, the name and the location are unlikely to be changed -- the fiction of Englishness can be maintained, even though the club is meaningfully English in name only, and all is well.
This is a phenomenon -- certainly one that I never anticipated -- that is open to more than one interpretation. It could mean that the English soccer public is finally welcoming the world game, that it is no longer convinced that only the English know how to play the sport. Which would be a revolutionary and massively positive development, one that should open the way to a much broader view of the game, which in turn should ensure the development of better players.
Then again, it could mean something rather different, something decidedly more parochial. The Italians have a nice word for this -- campanilismo, which comes from campanile, meaning a church’s bell tower. Campanilismo describes a village attitude, one that is interested only in things that happen within sound or sight of the local church tower. For bell tower, read local soccer club. All that matters is that this club, this one dot on the global soccer map, does well, and wins. It doesn’t matter any more (where it used to be of considerable importance) that the players are no longer locals, or English, or at any rate British. Now the players can come from anywhere. Ethnic diversity is welcomed -- not as such, but simply as a means of strengthening our club.
The attitude is insular. It will do little to help the development of the game in England. Unfortunately, it is also an attitude that greatly appeals to the marketing fraternity whose voice is so relentlessly and irritatingly heard these days. The more feverish the fans’ devotion to their local club -- that is, the more intense their campanilismo -- the more the marketeers like it. It enables them to indulge in promiscuous use of one of their favorite words, passion. You’re not supposed to question the validity of an attitude that’s described as passionate.
It almost looks as though ethnic diversity, instead of bringing broad-mindedness, is getting swallowed up by the narrow-mindedness of campanilismo. That’s soccer for you, perverse as ever.