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July 2021

10 reasons why England fail and will always fail in international football

by Tony Attwood

We all know all about the FA incompetence, its wastage of money, its willingness to take on people known to have been involved in murky deals, and its utter unwillingness to deal with employees who are shown to have lied in court.

Untold also led the way with the original research which showed the direct link between international success and the percentage of qualified coaches per head of population.  The link is clear and the research has been re-published in several national newspapers since.

But I thought it might be interesting to see if we could find other reasons to explain why England generally does far worse than countries that are a fraction of its size when it comes to international football.  Which is not to say that England will lose to Scotland, but rather why a country with such an interest in football does so poorly at international level generally.

1: Lack of knowledge of other countries’ football

Very few English players at the top of their game play overseas, and many of those who try it come back to England quite quickly.   So the experience and knowledge of overseas football that is commonplace among players, and indeed managers, in much of Europe, is totally missing among English players – and most English managers.

2: The simplistic belief that somehow our country is better

Nationalism and national pride are often whipped up by politicians who otherwise don’t have much of a message, but as a method of continuous growth such approaches are pretty much failures.  Self-belief is always ok, and can be good, but not when it becomes utterly removed from the reality of what is out there.

3:  Players who have moved around Europe develop a willingness to get together and work out how to make each team they play for work.

There are of course different styles and approaches to football across Europe, just as there are different tastes in food, clothing, buildings, and everything else.  The more you see, the more you experience, the more you understand.

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But simply experiencing foreign countries via a 24 hour visit for an away international, or a couple of weeks staying in a hotel during an international tournament is not the same as getting an understanding of foreign countries.  Indeed it is probably worse than not going at all, since it allows the shock of the difference to hit the players, but not the slow growth in maturity of understanding the nuances and differences of life across the continent.

4: The essence of self importance

Foreigners are funny – that may be a parody of the standard English view, but there is a still a very strong sense of that.   Whereas for many people foreign travel is a part of their lives, for many English people, and I believe for many English players, the aim when going on holiday is to take as much Englishness with them as possible.   There is among many an unwillingness to embrace alternative cultures.

Of course there are many English footballers who do travel and learn, but I get the impression (and I fully admit it is just an impression) that the Tony Adams style of reality expressed on hearing who his new manager was going to be (“He’s French, what does he know about English football?”) is still prevalent.

The fact is that just because most English players don’t actually know too much about French football, doesn’t mean that most French players don’t know too much about English football.

5: A lack of encouragement of individuality and creativity

It has long seemed to me that one of the key purposes of the school system in England is to erase all sense of individuality and creativity from the pupils and students.  The utter fixation with school uniforms and a formal style of dress among teachers that many schools in England have, expresses this completely.  Expression in the creative arts, excellence in sport, and the expression of individuality has always been far lower on the agenda than encouragement of creative talent and thinking.

As a result, and of course this is just my theory, when those with talent leave school they leave either having had their individuality, creativity and unique skills knocked out of them, or they go full time into rebellion against all authority.

I generalise of course, but certainly if you look at school pupils and students and the way they dress in many parts of western Europe, and then look at how all pupils and students are forced into identikit costumes, for no reason other than the fact that this is what we do, it certainly must have an impact on young people and their subsequent development.

6: In all sports we need leaders as well as team players as well as individualists.  

The problem is that when there is an inherent view that we are naturally better than everyone else, leadership qualities become warped and the motivational team talk becomes little more than “we are superior – go and kick the hell out of them”.

7: Britain is one of the few countries (the US is another) that has embraced post-truth-reality as if it were a good thing.

You say it, so it is true.  Forget experts, forget analysis, forget statistics.   These are derided as “clever clever” ideas and appeals are then made to common sense.   So the requirement on Untold for correspondents to give evidence to back up their views, or at to make a structured coherent argument, are swept aside with claims that “I use the evidence of my own eyes”.  Which is why they presumably believe the sun goes round the earth, the earth is flat, the moon is one inch in diameter, and the man 50 yards down the road is actually two inches tall – until he gets up close, at which point he suddenly grows.

8:  The English are notoriously poor at learning foreign languages.

I hold up my hand here to my shame and admit it.  I can say that I did live in a French speaking country for a year and when I left I had a certain amount of ability to speak the language, and could hold a conversation but I really do wish I had had lessons in multiple languages and the chance to explore them when I was young.

I remember Chris Waddle doing an interview about when he went to Marseille in 1989 in which he said that his Tottenham team mates expressed amazement that he was going to a foreign country.   In the interview Waddle said that he was asked what language he would speak when in France, and he replied that he was already taking intensive French lessons.  He then said that his Tottenham colleagues had said to him, “Make them speak English.  Show them you’re boss.”

9: We allow the FA to get on with it.

It doesn’t seem to matter how many disasters they preside over, somehow the notion that it is the FA that is to blame, is lost.

This of course is all part of the fixation we have had in England with Thatchers comment “there is no such thing as society.”  It is all down to the individual, not the group, so the FA can’t be at fault, it can only be the manager.

But organisations can go bad and if you want to see an explanation of one such, look at … the FA.

10:  There is little doubt that many of the issues expressed here are fundamental to the writings in the media.  

Such ideas are just replicated day by day.  Radio, TV, the press and now social media, churn out the same messages day after day, without taking into account any of the evidence before us.  So it goes on.

Can it ever change?

It seems unlikely, and even if only two or three of the points I have made here are actually true (although I think they are all valid) then it seems difficult to imagine how English football on an international level can ever improve.

One day it might if the FA could be reformed, but then with parliament allowing the FA to get away with murder when called before a select committee (see the last article) and with the media failing to hold the FA to account, it seems hard to see any way forward.

Untold will keep putting forward its alternative view – because that is what we do.  It is in the name.  Untold.   But I think there are some things that are beyond even our power to change.

Tales from Untold 

Wenger ponders whether Yaya Sanogo will ever really be good enough for Arsenal. 

Commons Committee questioning of Greg Clarke, Chairman, The Football Association,

Open letter to FIFA on Remembrance Day

Violence and corruption in Greek football, humanity and respect at Rochdale

Who spends the most, and who gets the most from player sales?

Reasons to be cheerful are slipping away like snow in spring

Referee Appointments and Results Matchweek #09 complete with video evidence

How Tottenham’s 451 fouls can equal no red cards at all.

As another FA corruption story breaks it is clear the FA and Fifa deserve each other. But we don’t deserve either of them.


17 comments to 10 reasons why England fail and will always fail in international football

  • Usama Zaka

    When Gary Neville joined Valencia last season, the media asked Arsene Wenger what important piece of advice he should give to English managers going abroad..

    “They must try to understand the local culture, the culture of the club as well. Find a good compromise between that and without your giving up the way you see football.”

  • JohnW

    As for me, the most factor that makes England perform poorly on the international stage is the refereeing. In the PL, there are too many inconsistencies. Take for instance, the penalty conceded by Arsenal in the NLD, and compare it with what they missed at Sunderland, these inconsistencies do not allow English players to learn the game. Its more like when they go to international tournaments they are being judged under different rules from what they are used to in the PL.How is it a penalty against Dembele and not one when Sanchez is pegged back against Sunderland! So in away, some teams are penalized through this ‘biased’ refereeing, but in the grand scheme of things, its the FA 9read national team) that suffers in the long run.

  • WalterBroeckx

    John W,
    Another fine example can be given with Vertonghen. In the NLD he clearly was shirt pulling Koscielny (I think) when a corner was delivered. A clear penalty foul. But the blind PGMO man in the middle missed it. But when Vertonghen played for Belgium against Holland and did some shirt pulling in the penalty area the Polish ref pointed to the penalty spot much to the bemusement of Vertonghen. After all understandable as he can pull shirts in matches in the PL and get away with it each and every time…
    This was a classic example on how players in the PL are getting confused by how PL referees do their matches in the PL and how referees from other countries implement the laws as it should be.

  • Terry

    Good article and i totally agree to some of this points.
    For me the english football thinks that he is better than he truly is, not only the national team, the clubs too.
    They don´t want to learn from other countries or teams, they are always searching for their own style and hold on to this style if it works or not.
    Don´t think that the refereeing of the PL is respnsible for that, do you realy think that the referees in other countries are better or that in other countries there is no difference between the national and international style of refereeing?
    Todays match will show that Scotland has some of this problems too, what they have is that they put more emotions in the game so they can improve their lack of Play. Don´t think that we see a turning point in this game, it´s just another game England has to get through, i´m not the only one who thinks like this (source: )
    If the english Football won´t face up the Facts nothing will Change and it won´t get better with the time.

  • Norman14

    There are mighty problems at FA Headquarters, but if Greg Clarke is just going to be another “Head in the Sand” Chairman, then the national team is being set up to fail.

  • SamuelAkinsolaAdebosin

    Under the watch of Gareth Southgate, the current England national football team caretaker manager, who now wants the job on a longer basis, the England national football team is widely expected to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. And also improve on their past lackluster performances at the tourney.

    To qualify for Regional and Global tourney is not really a problem for the Three Lions to solve. But getting past the group stage of their group during a tournament has become the obstacle for the England national football team and their past managers to overcome since they got to the World Cup semi-final in Italia ’90. I think I watched master heading – David Platt scored a headed equalising goal in that match against Germany who went on to knockout England later in that match to reach the final.

    Some football experts have alluded to the thought that the lack of English players going abroad to play in other top Leagues in the world has downgraded their skills to inferior class on the international Arena. But I don’t concur with this thought. Because (1.) For the money, the top English players won’t get any higher financial pay than what they are collecting at their clubs as insensitive that will entice and lure them to leave home for abroad. For the English Leagues more especially the Premier League pay far better money to their players in general than the other clubs in Europe and elsewhere are paying to their players. Save in the exception of a few of them.

    And 2. The Premier League clubs where all the England national team squad are selected from, are full of top international footballers who are playing alongside their English top player counterparts for their clubs on regular basis. So whatever experience the English players would have gained by going abroad to play in other top Leagues has been brought to them to gain by those foreign top players on a platter.

    I think one problem Gareth Southgate will need to overcome before he and his England payers go to the World Cup finals in Russia is, the issue of fatigue and tiredness the England players would have suffered during their last clubs season campaign before the World Cup takes place.

    And 2ndly, the temptation of making a wrong selection for a match to favour other players in the squad during the tourney who may not be the best that should be selected must be overcome. Right from the 23 players Southgate will selected for the competition, his selection must 1st be based on the current last form of the selected player/players before any yardstick is applied for selection. Players should never be selected for a World Cup tournament on the basis the big name of a player but on his very current big form and fitness in addition to the experience he/they has or have.

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Well at least your FA have the singular distinction (?)of being the unique one in having had the foresight in having appointed the only international manager with the most enviable achievement – 100% win record .
    Shouldn’t that ought to amount to something ? The record books don’t lie !
    And according to Norman 14’s article he was paid rather well for his services !

  • Goonermikey

    Great article and whilst I completely agree with JohnW and Walter about the impact of double standards among refs, number 7 sums it up for me. The idea that the British/English are better than every other nation at everything and always know best sums it all up. Having been tempted by the odd late package deal when younger, I now seek holidays as far away from Brits as possible. The embarrassment of a bloke who is a Brit abroad who barely speaks English himself shouting aggressively at a foreign waiter to speak English is something to behold.

    Far from being proud to be British abroad this sort of behaviour is cringeworthy. I don’t suggest for one moment all Brits behave in this way but when we have a whole section of society that screams about “taking democracy back” and then standing up to sing god save the queen, whilst moaning about the courts adhering to the law and upholding the sovereignty of parliament is a key indicator of why we certainly weren’t first in the queue when logic was being handed out.

  • nicky

    Two comments on your thought-provoking post.
    1. The importance of school uniforms is not only to instil pride in the school but also to emphasise equality. Otherwise wealthy parents would naturally buy expensive clothing for their children.
    2. I think you might have made more of the fact that most fans now support their clubs rather than the national side. There is a clear indication these days that the internationals have become an irritating interruption in the progress of the EPL. 😉

  • para

    Spot on this article.
    I used to call it the arrogance of the English, but i soon realised it’s just stupidity really.
    Of course this is not all English people, but the majority.

  • Leon

    The City of London Police have cleared Sam Allardyce of any criminal wrong doing, but are pursuing one case of bribery, but haven’t mentioned who is being investigated. Not Sam though.
    So it’s now up to the FA to do what they will with this issue (as they now have all the relevant info from the Bill), and we know what is likely to happen there.

  • Andy Mack

    Too many points to respond to but a few notes;
    1) Most foreigners don’t speak English because of us, they speak it because Americans (and Aussies and Kiwis and us and the better part of Canada etc etc). If American (and Hollywood movies) spoke German then German would be the language kids want to learn.
    2) As for school uniforms, I’m afraid your comment is very superficial. In the rest of Europe (that’s what we’re talking about mainly) education, schools and teachers have a much higher standing in society. Unfortunately here when schools do not have a uniform code, a depressingly high portion of parents and kids ‘take the piss’. Kids would turn up in clothing completely unsuitable for public places and of the subjects covered. On top of this, we have an embarrassingly strong class system (more than most other European countries) which would result in more bullying, whether it’s because a kids parents can’t afford the latest clothes for their child, or possibly even because they can. This still happens with uniforms but much less so. If you want to change this system then there’s much more to it than just ‘because it’s what we do’.
    3) Having travelled quite extensively, I find it odd that brits (English, Scots, Welsh and even Irish to some degree) want to visit places where the menu consist of more English dishes than Local dishes, especially as we have such excellent non-british restaurants here. But that’s because we still have such a large population with such a small island mentality.
    4) However the main reasons for our international embarrassment is the failure of the FA to educate enough coaches and the failure of the PGMO to officiate games in a consistent manner. As we’ve seen already, 11 games in and the wrestling at corners is completely legal again… Xhaka gets a Red card for a foul that we see at least once every match weekend, but only warrants a free kick or at worst a yellow card in most cases (I can’t think of any other instance this season where a red has been awarded for a similar foul).

  • Josif


    I would focus on reluctance of English football establishment both to accept things from the continental Europe and to make itself acceptable to the Continent.

    Take a look at the best English players. For over a decade the best English players don’t leave their clubs to move abroad unless they go to cash in their fame in USA (Gerrard, Lampard). And we are talking about players who used to be among the best in the world – Gerrard and Lampard were once rated 2nd and 3rd in the world. Prior to those late departures, McManaman, Owen, Beckham and Woodgate had all played for Real Madrid, not in the same time but there was both a desire from players to test themselves outside England and a desire from Real to sign them. Ashley Cole went to Roma only because Chelsea didn’t need him as he became a crap.

    Some might say that is heavily connected with money but Real can pay 350.000 pounds after tax to Bale every week so why they don’t go after, say, Sterling? Or our Chamberlain? Or Kane?

    The reason is, there is not enough quality among English players. Poor work with players, especially the way referees have threated ball-players such as Wilshere, can be seen at every international tournament. It looks like the whole world knows how to pass the ball while England still rely on pace and power, neglecting technique and tactics in the process. That is a direct consequence of poor ratio of coaches and players. Also, decisions on the pitch… I don’t think any big national team in Europe can compete with England in making poor decisions.

    And there are even fewer quality English managers. Forget about the titles, when will an English manager make his club a top-half material? An average English manager prefers a long-ball football based on counter-attacks and set-pieces. Eddie Howe may be an exception but let’s sit and wait. He can become a new Garry Monk in a second.

    Germans were going through crisis after 1996. Well, sort of. Just a QF at WC 1998, a debacle at EURO 2000, a rather bizarre road to silver medal at WC 2002, a debacle at EURO 2004…no victory over a European team at big tournaments in eight years! They turned things upside down and, once the Spaniards became a force, they pretty much learned from them and made a scientific approach to speed up their passing game. As a result, they have become the most likeable German team ever with our Mesut as the personification of that exciting modern football of theirs.

    Maybe it’s time that England start learning from Germany.

  • Andy Mack

    Josif, I think a lot of the reason for a lack English players moving into Europe is also about the poor level of competition of the foreign leagues. La Liga has at most 4 competitive teams per season (often less) and a couple that have good runs to 5/6 in La Liga. So depending when you play those teams you could have as little as 6 competitive domestic games per season. For the rest of them you could rely on one of the superstars to win the game on their own. Unfortunately the same hold true for most of the other leagues. So although it would be great to be rested for the CL/Europa games, we all know that could add up to very few competitive games as well (until the last 16).
    When La Liga sorts it act out with TV money and the other teams get enough money to compete, then I suspect more players will be happy to swap Stoke for Deportivo etc, and it’ll throw up a few undiscovered stars (a bit like how N’zonzi has done so well there).

  • Gord

    Giroud and Koscielny played the 90, but didn’t get cards or goals or assists.

    Mustafi got slivers. Gnabry got a hat trick. Congratulations young man!

    Szczesny got slivers. Fabianski played the 90.

    Wilshere and Walcott got slivers.

  • Blacksheep

    i think its more basic Tony.

    Other countries are better at football than we are. The PL looks like the best league in the world because it is full of foreigners not in spite of it. The sooner the authorities realise this the better. Wallcott is a much better player in an Arsenal team with Oil, Sanchez, Santi et al than he is with a bunch of fairy nondescript Spuds and United’s second team.

    But there is a solution.

    give ME the England team to manage and let ME run the FA
    I will make England GREAT again (oh yes) Great I tell you (its going to be beautiful)
    i’m GREAT

  • Andy Mack

    Blacksheep, you’re right about the quality of the players, but I’d add that there are little gangs within the set up. On a number of occasions I’ve seen Shrek desperately looking for someone to pass to other than the obvious (and sensible) pass to Theo or Jack. He’d rather see his mates do well for the national team than see someone he’s clearly not buddy with do well and the team be successful…
    It seems to be the case that the very structure of the national set up shows favouritism, otherwise Rose and Walker wouldn’t be in the squad and Alli would be a bench player with the potential to become a first choice player (he has the talent but not the mentality).