Monday’s France vs. England clash at Euro 2012 (at noon EST on ESPN for U.S. viewers) will serve up a reminder of a longstanding football paradox: The French game has, over the past two decades, produced dozens of the world’s finest players — think Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry — and its national team won the World Cup in ’98 and Euro 2000, as well as being beaten only on penalties in the final of World Cup 2006. Yet, Ligue 1, France’s domestic pro league, is very much in the shadow of the English Premiership as well as Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and the German Bundesliga. And it’s in those four leagues that France’s top players over the period of its greatest success — and still today — earn their wages. Of the French team expected to start against England, only three players are based at French clubs. Moreover, if tradition is anything to go by, any of the home-based players that has a decent tournament will likely be signed by a foreign club before the summer is over. Many of France’s exports are top players in the elite leagues. Consider its attacking trident: Karim Benzema, the striker at the top of his game, leads the line for Spanish champions Real Madrid; Franck Ribery stars for beaten Champion’s League finalists Bayern Munich; Samir Nasri won the Premier League title with Manchester City. And they can compete for bragging rights with Chelsea midfielder Florent Malouda’s Champion’s League winners medal.
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But if the English Premier League is the big time — and home to seven of France’s key men — you wouldn’t know it to look at England’s performances in international football. Aside from the one World Cup won on home soil in 1966, England has scarcely been a contender in international football throughout its history. It failed to even qualify to Euro 2008, and that wasn’t an aberration; it was actually the fifth time England has failed to qualify for the Euro tournament, and it also failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1994, 1978 and 1974.
While English football may be the most popular global TV spectacle; English football players may not be the reason. Sure, Chelsea won the Champion’s League, but there were only three Englishmen among the 13 players used by the London club that day. And just three of the 14 players used by Manchester City in its title winning match with Queens Parks Rangers on the last day of the season were English.
There are plenty of talented Englishmen, of course: Manchester United finished second in the league, usually fielding around five. But the team that finished highest in the table while typically fielding a majority of English players was Liverpool — in eighth place. And the fact that there are six Liverpool players on the England squad at Euro 2012 is an unhappy portent of England’s prospects.
England’s woes at the international level periodically set off a round of complaints about “too many foreigners” playing in the Premiership, keeping those jobs away from hardworking English lads and preventing them learning to play at top level. This, quite simply, is rubbish. When England’s domestic league was a largely English affair in the 1970s and there were scarcely any foreign players around, England couldn’t even qualify for the World Cup. The standard of England’s players has risen immensely as a result of playing alongside some of the world’s best players at the club level, and under foreign coaches.
But the malaise of English football runs deep. To bring England up to par, the level of technical skills, tactical discipline and nous and game intelligence imparted at the youth level must be revolutionized. (All is not lost when one looks at youngsters such as United’s Danny Wellbeck, Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and others coming through under a more “continental” order in English football.)
Still, the acknowledged gulf in class means that while France goes into Euro 2012 as a contender, England does not.
Les Bleus in 2000 became the exception to the rule, over the past two decades, that the Euro title is won by countries whose players are mostly based in their domestic leagues. Denmark’s ’92 squad were mostly based abroad, but Germany in ’96, Greece in ’04 and Spain in ’08 were all dominated by home-based players.
Among this year’s contenders, Germany, Spain, Italy and — if you accept our dark-horse prediction — Russia field squads dominated by home-based players. But Holland, France and Portugal rely mostly on players based in stronger leagues. With Holland and Portugal having suffered setbacks in their opening games, the trend right now is backing the teams built on home-based players.
National teams based on domestic leagues often have an advantage in cohesion, usually featuring a number of players from top clubs who are accustomed to playing together — see Russia’s Zenit St. Petersburg dominated side, or Spain’s Barcelona core. Italy’s excellent performance against Spain in Sunday’s 1-1 draw was helped by fielding six starters from Serie A winners Juventus. Then again, having six Liverpool players in its squad is likely to give England no more advantage than Greece gains from having five Olympiacos men and a midfield core from Panathinaikos. The club teams themselves have to be top competitors to make the difference. National teams that are based on players based in better foreign leagues have the advantage of their players skills and tactical nous being honed at a higher level.
It may be, of course, that in the Champion’s League era of cosmopolitan football migration and homogenization of styles and tactics, such differences may not run all that deep. On the football field, as in the realm of political economy, Europeans are more aware than ever that the connections that bind them may be more important than the distinctions that separate them. But everything depends on the resources at hand, which is why France will be able to play the free-flowing attacking football of the contemporary German team, while England’s game plan — as revealed in the recent friendly against Belgium — will be to park the proverbial team bus in front of their own goal and hope for the odd breakaway goal. At the club level, that could be likened to the tactics that won Chelsea the Champion’s League. At the international level, though, it’s more like the winning formula adopted in 2004 by those other perennial Euro strugglers, Greece. Being the underdog holding out bravely against the odds may even be England’s preferred football narrative. It makes a win over France that much sweeter.