Commentary

The English get a timely reminder from Jurgen Klopp

By Paul Gardner

I have a problem with Jurgen Klopp: I find it difficult to take anything he says seriously. His demented sideline antics have more or less forced me to view him as an overgrown child -- so why listen?

Then again, maybe my reaction to Klopp’s childishness is equally childish. After all, the guy does have a pretty good coaching record, and after all again, we are talking about soccer, not exactly an activity that demands decorum.

Anyway, Klopp is a lot better on TV than he is on the sideline. His recent BBC interview, in which he talked about English soccer’s quaint habit of not taking a Christmas break, is clear evidence of that.

In just 90 seconds, speaking articulately in English, Klopp made the point: in England, too many games are played, too many tournaments. All the other European nations take a Christmas break and their domestic cup competitions are much less exacting than the English versions. The result: England, and English clubs, are at a disadvantage in international competitions.

Will anyone in England listen? Doubtful. Tradition looms large in English thinking. Abandoning it is not an easy move. Klopp’s few, but well-chosen, words raise a question, a much wider question, about that devotion to soccer tradition.

Traditions have to start somewhere, but obviously they are not traditions when they start. Maybe it takes 20 years, maybe 50 years, after the birth of a practice for it to turn into a tradition.

Yet I don’t think it took very long for soccer to develop its traditions. Because the main one was already there, right from the start. It came from outside soccer, and was not so much a practice, as a mindset.

The birth-year of soccer is generally marked as 1863, the year the English Football Association was founded. In 1863, Queen Victoria was in the middle of her imperious 64-year reign. Just five years earlier India had been grabbed as part of the British Empire, and British power and expansion worldwide seemed irresistible.

Along with the all-conquering British Empire grew a British mindset: The British were superior. Which put foreigners, all of them, firmly in their place.

The British were better than the foreigners at world domination, and it smoothly followed that the British were better at soccer too. That attitude made sense in the early days of the sport. As international soccer began to flex its muscles, the British regularly, and quite easily, beat everyone.

For nearly 100 years the tradition of British superiority in soccer prevailed. But it was more of an imperial tradition than a soccer one. Slowly, unnoticed -- certainly by the British -- the tradition was being exposed as a myth.

In November 1953 the Hungarians arrived in London to play England at Wembley Stadium. Nobody, least of all the English players, knew anything about them. Why would they? Why bother, when England was bound to win anyway?

On that misty fall afternoon, England did not win. Hungary scored after just 90 seconds, and the cream of English soccer was humiliated by the eventual 6-3 scoreline. The myth of the inferior foreigners was not looking too good. Not to worry -- this was an inexplicable aberration. There was a return game coming up in Budapest the following year. England would re-assert its rightful dominance in that game.

An even worse fiasco awaited before 92,000 fans in the Nepstadion. England scored once, but the Hungarians rattled in seven goals. It remains England’s heaviest-ever defeat. The myth of English superiority was dead and buried.

It should have been, that is. Incredibly, it lived on. In 1955, just one year after the Budapest debacle, UEFA created the European Cup. Chelsea, the current English champion, was invited to join in. They accepted, but quickly withdrew before playing a game because of pressure from the English Football League, which decided that entering the tournament would not be “in the best interests of English football and football in general.”

That pattern of ignoring the rest of the soccer world had been set back in 1904 when FIFA was formed. England did not join. In 1905 it changed its mind, but then quit after World War I. Which meant that England did not play in the inaugural World Cup in 1930, nor in 1934 or 1938. In 1946 England rejoined FIFA and in 1950 played in its first World Cup. Installed as one of the favorites, (amazingly, foreigners, the target of the English superiority myth, still gave it credence) England flopped badly, suffering yet another international embarrassment as it lost to the United States and failed to advance out of the first round.

In 1954 it was Scotland’s turn for disaster. Playing in its first World Cup it was outclassed 7-0 by Uruguay. But in 1966 the English, at last, had real success, winning that year’s World Cup. The English had, at last, proved they were the world’s best.

England has won nothing at the world level since 1966. But, my word, how hard die the English soccer traditions! Fragments of the superiority myth are still around. Which gets us back to Jurgen Klopp, because what he has drawn attention to -- probably without being aware of it -- is one of those fragments. The fact that the English play too many games -- and particularly that they do not take a break at Christmas -- is a remnant of the thinking that the English domestic game is more important than all this international stuff.

The English have to know that those extra games don’t help their chances, that they work to the advantage of their continental rivals. Yet they are reluctant to make any changes -- reluctant to take a Christmas break, reluctant to reduce the demands of the domestic schedule.

The insular attitude is one that would have been readily understood back in 1955 by Alan Hardaker, the man who was then the secretary of the Football League. The man who told Chelsea not to enter European competition because it would not be “in the best interests of English football and football in general.” Maybe there was an excuse for such narrow-mindedness in 1955. But that was 60 years ago ...

15 comments about "The English get a timely reminder from Jurgen Klopp ".
  1. Michael Haltom, December 26, 2015 at 8:26 a.m.

    As English players cannot even dominate the top English league, I doubt the festive period fixtures are the reason for England's failures at the international level.

  2. Gus Keri, December 26, 2015 at 8:33 a.m.

    It's a myth that the heavy schedule is the reason for England failure at the international level. Top teams in Spain play as many games as top teams in England, give or take a 1 or 2, yet Spain won three of the past 4 major international tournaments. Look for the answers in the English youth academies.

  3. Paul Roby replied, December 28, 2015 at 5:08 p.m.

    Many players, coaches and commentators have made the connection between the heavy English league schedule and international tournament losses in the summer. It's not a myth to them.

  4. Lou vulovich, December 26, 2015 at 9:29 a.m.

    The EPL is from top to bottom the toughest league in the world. That combined with virtually no break during the season gives a huge advantage to the Spanish Giants and especially to German clubs like BM who have no domestic competition. The EPL would be smart to take a one week break. There are way too many games in a season. WC Qualifying, European Qualifing,
    National Cups, Pre Season Tournaments, Domestic Leagues, Champions League, European Leauge. The Quantaty goes up every year and the quality goes down.

  5. David V, December 26, 2015 at 11:10 a.m.

    more England articles and England worship ... Zzzzzzz... zzzz

  6. Ric Fonseca replied, December 26, 2015 at 1:43 p.m.

    David, thanks, you took the words right outta my mouth!!! Indeed, must've been another slooooow soccer day for PG!!! Also, being a Brit, PG, and how he's ranted against English futbol-soccer, why does he continue to bore us with this stuff? I just wish he'd focus on good ole USA futbol-soccer, jeez, bigger country, more players (per US Soccer) wider audience, many more different styles, the JK's to kick around, the most Landycakes to laud and put on pedestal, Latino, Eastern European, Asian jogo bonito, style of futbol, scandals galore, our very own WORLD CUP CHAMPIONS, etc, etc, yada-yada. So y'all see, there is much more to write about, in fact betcha PG could even write a daily column on what ails, or what is great about good ole USA-Gringo futbol-soccer!!! Anyhow, HAPPY NEW YEAR FOLKS!!!

  7. beautiful game, December 26, 2015 at 11:35 a.m.

    Problem for English soccer is: Where have you gone George Best, Paul Gascione, and Stanley Mathews et al. The creme of the de la creme are nowhere to be found.

  8. Ric Fonseca replied, December 26, 2015 at 1:46 p.m.

    Hola I w, betcha you were thinking about the Simon and Garfunkel song, "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, the nation yearns for your return...) [apologies to S & G!] FELIZ ANO NUEVO!!!

  9. Peter Orona, December 26, 2015 at 12:37 p.m.

    Leagues ranked by order
    1. La Liga
    2. Bundesliga
    3. English Premier League

  10. Ric Fonseca replied, December 26, 2015 at 4:26 p.m.

    Peter, nah! Here's my take on ranking the leagues: 1. La Liga, 2. La Liga II, 3. La Liga/La Masia, 4. La Liga, RM, 5. La Bundesliga, 6, Serie A, 7. Liga MX, 9. Liga Everyone else, 10. La Liga EPL version.

  11. Scott Johnson, December 26, 2015 at 4:26 p.m.

    Everyone is ignoring a big issue here--pro sports leagues are reluctant to shorten schedules, because additional games mean additional dollars, pounds, pesos, Euros, or yen into the team coffers. (In basketball, the NBA has exactly the same problem--82 games is just too damn many, especially with teams regularly enduring four games in five nights, each in a different city...) At any rate, while the English player no longer dominates global soccer (were the English national team a Premier League side, they would be relegated), the English fan (and his wallet) still "dominates" in the way that matters most to the powers that be: at the box office. And Jurgen should be happy for the Christmas weekend game this year, given that his side just gave a stocking full of coal to Leicester City...

  12. David Mont, December 27, 2015 at 11:17 a.m.

    Ric, is that the same Liga MX in your list that keeps loosing to Asian and African teams in the Club World Cup year after year?

  13. Ric Fonseca replied, December 27, 2015 at 3:39 p.m.

    David, of course it IS, you know danged well it IS!!! Ever hear of something called "tongue-in-cheek"? Please remind me, does the EPL wins as much in the Club World Cup year after year? HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!

  14. Ric Fonseca replied, December 27, 2015 at 3:41 p.m.

    Oh yeah, David, you didn't know there were more leagues as I've listed them?

  15. Allan Lindh, December 28, 2015 at 12:14 a.m.

    Change the league cup to an under-21 tournament, will ease the situation.

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