Ballon d'Or List Shows Next English Generation May Be Even Less Golden Than the Last

The Independent (London, England), October 28, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Ballon d'Or List Shows Next English Generation May Be Even Less Golden Than the Last


It was hardly a shock but that didn't make the judgement any less oppressive when not a single Englishman made the shortlist for Fifa's World Player of the Year award this week. Dire failure in the World Cup and the Champions League no doubt made the voting down of an English presence by coaches, national team captains and journalists a fait accompli.

What it didn't do, though, was obscure the reality that this reflected more, much more, than a reaction to a set of dismal performances in club and international football.

Popularity parades, and subjective voting, are one thing; quite another is the lack of a sense that a line of succession is in place, that young English players are showing that they have the necessary competitive character, encouragement and environment to one day challenge an international player aristocracy populated by Spaniards, overwhelmingly, and Germans and Dutch and which includes contenders from Uruguay and Ghana.

How can we imagine a Spanish or German-type groundswell in England in this year of all years?

Who can we pick out as native-born young runners in a race being led by the Germans Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mller and the maturing warrior Bastian Schweinsteiger to reach the level of the man who will surely succeed Lionel Messi as the award's winner, Andres Iniesta?

In the third month of a new season only one such candidate has suggested himself here. It is Arsenal's precocious Jack Wilshere who, if he can smooth out a reckless tackling tendency, offers a new dimension to his club and, just maybe, a ready-made replacement whenever Cesc Fabregas - one of only three Premier League nominees - decides finally to return to his native soil.

Wilshere has shown the classic characteristics of the English footballer praised so highly in the past by, among others, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer - a competitive edge and intensity of the higher order - along with striking evidence that he is sophisticated enough to perform at the most demanding level.

Yes, there are a few other possibilities. Joe Hart may indeed find the lost chord of English goalkeeping and his Manchester City club-mate Adam Johnson has shown much promise, so far, though not enough to win a guaranteed place on the international chorus line assembled by his coach Roberto Mancini.

Similarly, Theo Walcott occupies the margins of Arsenal's first team. So where is the sure-fire provenance of English football? It has rarely seemed quite so elusive.

Now we shouldn't be squeamish. We should acknowledge that the verdict brought by the Ballon d'Or voters isn't solely about the caprices of form but a statement of near bankruptcy in the way English football attempts to groom the best of its young talent.

The brutal fact is that the English game, in the main, simply doesn't care enough about the development of a core of native-born talent. If it did, it might have responded to the French creation of a custom-made training centre in a forest south of Paris that helped shape the golden age of Zidane and Henry, Vieira and Thuram. It might have responded with urgency to the concern that increasingly young English players were being squeezed out of the Premier League action, a shrinking of exposure that has now fallen shockingly below 40 per cent - much the worst of the major leagues of European football.

On the eve of the Fifa announcement, the FA's director of football development, Sir Trevor Brooking, said that it was a little too soon for a reprise of the previously catastrophic English regime of Steve McClaren after his success last season in Dutch football - perhaps a rare moment of reflection in an almost demented, tokenistic clamour to return an Englishman to control of a team that has driven Fabio Capello, previously one of the most successful coaches of them all, to the point of distraction.

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