England's Own Goal

Against long odds, Chelsea FC overcame both Barcelona and Bayern Munich to win the UEFA Champions League. While Chelsea lost the final (and the semi-final for that matter) by any metric but the score line, goals are all that matters in the end. Style, invention, elegance belong to the football purist, not the pragmatist, and in this case the pragmatist won out. Beauty and efficacy aren’t always bedfellows on the pitch. It was Chelsea’s first Champions League trophy and a muffler to the criticisms that the club lacks a European pedigree. Moreover, it’s a result of which club and country can be proud. But pride should not be the only response, for the victory should give the English Football Association pause. Pause, not for how it was won, but pause because of who won it.

Chelsea’s an English club, with a support that has, at times, been too eager to demonstrate its Englishness. Chelsea’s more hooligan-minded supporters constructed a loyalist, white, Protestant ethos that the club has thankfully outgrown in the modern era. The terraces, once a recruiting ground for the racist National Front, now embrace a club whose roster reads like a World’s XI. Chelsea is based in London, owned by a Russian, coached by a Swiss-born Italian and fields a lineup of 10 different nationalities. Such an international organization is not an anomaly in the English Premier League, it’s the norm. Parochialism is long gone.

And that just might just be the problem for England.

As Euro 2012 gets underway, pundit after pundit predicts that England will be lucky to make it out of the group stages. The smart money stands behind Spain or Germany to take home the trophy. Chelsea FC may have won the Champions League, but it did it with only four English players in the starting lineup and two more on the bench for good measure. Contrast that figure with Barcelona, which features nine Spanish players, seven of whom call Catalonia home. Or Bayern Munich which has 13 Germans on its roster. La Liga, Spain’s top flight, boasts that over 75 per cent of its players are Spanish. Likewise, German nationals comprise over 50 percent of the Bundesliga. Unsurprisingly, the English Premier League, which most commentators regard as the best league in the world, draws a little over a third of its players from the British Isles (obviously the percentage from England is even lower). It would seem the only things English about the English Premier League are the name and the location. In its ascent to the top of club football, the EPL abandoned its obligation to cultivate English talent. England’s footballing future was sacrificed in the name of free enterprise and the club game.

England’s scored an own goal. Euro 2012, like the World Cup in 2010, will likely end in disappointment for the Three Lions. At least the recent Jubilee gave the English something to celebrate.

The whole of the UK should look to the continent for advice on how best to model a football league and a national association—just not fiscal policy.